In the quiet town of Palermo, Maine, the Second Baptist Church has been thrust into the limelight, but not for any sermon or community event. Instead, it has become the target of vandals who defaced its pro-life sign with messages promoting abortion rights and “queer love.” The incident last Saturday night is stirring debate over whether this act should be considered a hate crime under Maine law.
The church’s sign, which read “Every Life Matters” and “Abortion is Still Murder,” was covered with red paint and new messages: “Abortion is our human right” and “Queer love 4 eva.” State Rep. Katrina Smith (R), a member of the church, described it as an “escalation of violence against the church.” She told WCSH-TV, “For someone to come out and vandalize their house of worship, it really is intimidation, asking them not to continue to worship in the way that they are.”
Church's pro-life sign vandalized in Maine with 'queer love' and pro-abortion messages https://t.co/OT49IxdmRQ
— Stan Smith (@stanzo7788) September 13, 2023
Maine’s criminal code defines a hate crime as any act attempting “to injure, intimidate or interfere with or intentionally oppress or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege.” Whether this incident qualifies is subject to debate, but what isn’t debatable is the church’s previous history of vandalism.
This isn’t the first time the church has faced such acts; it was vandalized in 2019 and again just a week before the latest incident. The church has frequently displayed its conservative viewpoints on abortion and LGBT rights, making it a controversial symbol in the community.
Interestingly, as Timothy Zerillo, a Portland-based trial attorney, noted, the vandalism might theoretically fall into Maine’s category of a hate crime, depending on the intent behind the destruction of property. Meanwhile, Palermo Select Board Member Bob Kurek pointed out that vandalizing property is not suitable for expressing disagreement: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And even if that opinion is a strong opinion, it does not give people who disagree with that opinion the right to vandalize property or destroy property.”
Pastor Joshua Barnes also addressed the issue during his Sunday service, less optimistic about law enforcement’s capability to identify and hold the culprit accountable. “They parked out of camera range and walked in in the dark,” he said, adding, “That’s typically what cowards do.”
The incident comes after Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed a bill into law in June, allowing abortions for any reason up to the moment of birth. This move, coupled with the vandalism against a religious institution expressing a contrary view, only deepens the social and moral divide in the state.
While it is essential to respect differing opinions in a democratic society, the act of vandalizing property — particularly a house of worship — is criminal and disrupts the fabric of civil discourse. As Rep. Smith posed the question on her Facebook page, “Is this how civilized people speak against people who have a different view?”
Even if the violent act may not qualify as a hate crime under Maine law, it certainly qualifies as an act of intimidation and an infringement on the church community’s freedom to express their beliefs. It remains a sad reminder that the battle over moral and ethical issues can sometimes descend into uncivilized acts, ultimately clouding the prospects for genuine dialogue and understanding.