After retiring from his job as a heavy equipment welder in Florida, the 71-year-old Marine veteran settled down in Heflin seven years ago. The changes to his life, he said, couldn’t be more dramatic.
“I tell people I don’t know what it is,” Bland said. “When I moved here, I took seven pills a day. Then I started going to church every Sunday and started walking every day.”
That’s why it has become so easy for Bland to call his adopted state home — and why it was so hard for him in January when the Antioch Methodist Church in Heflin, the church he’s attended every Sunday since moving to Cleburne County, was burglarized.
“It felt like my own house had been broken into,” Bland said, who since the beginning of the year has been advocating for tougher laws in Alabama for those who steal from churches. “I thought to myself, that ought to be like a hate crime.”
The vulnerability of churches, especially in rural areas, has made them easy targets, Bland said, noting that Antioch was just one of three local churches he said were robbed earlier this year.
“If it’s not during church time, there’s no one there,” Bland said. “They can just hit them up and not get caught.”
Bland said news reports on the recent break-in at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which $40,000 worth of damage was reported, are proof that the problem has become an “epidemic” in the state. It’s also helped him gain support for his proposed law of heavily increasing the penalty for stealing from a church.
“Last year you know how many people supported this bill?” Bland said. “James Bland. County Road 49, Heflin. That was it. I’m just an old senior citizen who lives in the woods and the Lord put it in my heart to do this, and I can’t cut it loose.”
The first public advocacy came back in January when Bland asked the Cleburne County Commission for its help to get a law passed. State Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, was in attendance at the meeting that night and was impressed with the Heflin man’s initiative.
“It was his idea and I just sort of took it and ran with it,” Dial said, who sponsored a Senate bill in March that would make it a hate crime to burglarize or commit criminal mischief against religious property. “We’re going to name the bill after (Bland) if we can get it passed.”
The bill, which didn’t reach the Senate floor in the last legislative session, is an update of the Code of Alabama dealing with hate crimes. Dial said it’s extra protection for institutions that are vulnerable to thieves.
“Rural churches are just that: rural,” Dial said. “Most of them are isolated out there and they’re easy targets.”
Bland said while he appreciates Dial’s efforts, more can be done. Something simpler. Something tougher.
“I’m not a lawyer, so I might as well have been reading Russian,” Bland said about Dial’s proposed law. “I think what I want to do can be summed up in one paragraph. Make it so everyone can understand, you can’t steal from a church.”
It’s the reason he and Kent Ponder, a member of United Methodist Churches, were in Montgomery last week to talk to officials in the office of Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard about introducing a house bill.
“I’d like to see a more direct bill,” said Ponder, who serves as acting pastor for Antioch in Heflin. “One that prosecutors in the state can use to be able to make charges the charges stick.”
“These people should serve hard time, 10 to 20 years,” Bland said.
But there’s a hurdle to clear in getting anywhere with the bill — and that’s determining what constitutes a hate crime.
“It’s an issue of intent,” said Todd Stacy, communication director for Hubbard’s office. Under current laws, setting fire to a church is a hate crime, but that’s far removed from stealing air conditioning units to sell for scraps.
“It’s issues just like that that we have to consider before we can pass a bill like that.”
Dial said the bill he pre-filed in the Senate would leave the decision to charge church robbers with a hate crime up to the district attorney. The bill, he said, would largely be a deterrent.
“We want people to know, if you steal from churches, you can be charged with a hate crime,” Dial said.
The bill’s biggest advocates have also grappled with the term “hate.” Bland said the only way one could know if someone targeted a church out of hate is to ask them, but Ponder said he doesn’t think the reasons need to be justified.
“In most cases, these people are just trying to get quick cash as oppose to targeting churches specifically for what they stand for,” Ponder said. “But you can’t separate them. I would think you would just about have to charge these two things equally.”
If the definition of hate crime can’t hold up, it doesn’t mean that other avenues can be explored to stop church thieves, Stacy said.
“The issue of copper theft is larger than just churches,” Stacy said, drawing attention to a state senate bill introduced by Sen. Ben Brooks and Sen. Rusty Glover in March which would require records be maintained by metal recyclers on identification of sellers. The bill died on the Senate floor.
“It’s an ongoing problem, and this is going to require more legislation in the future,” Stacy said.
For his part, Bland said he is looking to other state laws regarding copper and metal thieves and is open to strengthening those laws in the state of Alabama if it helps deter church thieves. And he’s not done in the state capitol, either. He hopes to meet with Rep. Paul DeMarco, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, next week.
And while Bland is happy with the progress he has made, he said he won’t stop speaking out until something is done to protect the churches in the state he loves. For motivation, there’s one piece of Scripture he keeps coming back to.
“My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers,” Bland said, quoting Luke 19:46. “I think that about sums it up.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546