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A split federal appeals panel has reversed the arson convictions of a Satan-worshipper who set fire to five North Georgia churches during the 1998 Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The 2-1 decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will not free Jay Scott Ballinger, a self-described “Luciferian,” because he is serving a 42-year prison sentence for 26 other church burnings around the country. But the 11th Circuit ruling does vacate the life sentence Ballinger faced in the Georgia fires, which carried a harsher penalty because they resulted in the death of a volunteer firefighter. The 11th Circuit majority concluded that Ballinger’s crimes were “heinous,” but they added that state prosecutors should have handled the cases because Ballinger’s fires were not sufficiently connected to interstate commerce to trigger a 1996 federal church arson statute. “To allow the government to prosecute him for these arsons would be to obliterate the distinction between national and local authority that undergirds our federal system of government,” wrote Senior Judge James C. Hill, joined by Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr. VISITING JUDGE DISSENTS Visiting Senior Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall of the 9th Circuit dissented, pointing out that the churches bought prayer books and hosted pastors from other states. She added that Ballinger drove on interstate highways to travel from Indiana to Georgia on his multistate arson spree and used an Indiana credit card at a Georgia Kmart to buy a gas can with which he set the fires. Hall said Hill and Birch adopted “a cramped notion of church commerce” at odds with precedent at the U.S. Supreme Court and the 11th Circuit. U.S. v. Ballinger, Nos. 01-14872 and 01-15080 (11th Cir. Nov. 21, 2002). According to a Justice Department press release, Ballinger’s crimes stemmed from anti-Christian hostility that came from his belief in Lucifer. Joined by his girlfriend, Angela Wood, Ballinger began his arson odyssey in 1994 when he torched the Concord Church of Christ in Lebanon, Ind., a 100-year-old white frame building featured in the movie “Hoosiers.” Wood cooperated with authorities in prosecuting Ballinger. In 2000, Ballinger pleaded guilty to the Lebanon arson and 25 other church burnings in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and California, according to the press release. The 11th Circuit case dealt with Ballinger’s Georgia crimes, which occurred between Dec. 22, 1998, and Jan. 16, 1999. He destroyed three churches in Chatsworth, Commerce and Monroe and severely damaged other churches in Chatsworth and Watkinsville. The Commerce church fire, at the New Salem United Methodist Church, resulted in the death of a volunteer firefighter, according to the decision. In 2001, Ballinger pleaded guilty to those crimes as well, on the condition that he could appeal the constitutionality of the federal church arson law. He was sentenced to life in prison. The 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the law, but a majority held it was unconstitutionally applied to Ballinger. DEBATE IN SUPREME COURT The debate over Ballinger reflected an ongoing fight within the U.S. Supreme Court over Congress’ constitutional powers to regulate interstate commerce. Since 1995, the high court has issued several 5-4 decisions striking down acts of Congress — most notably sections of the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the Violence Against Women Act — because the conduct at issue had only a tenuous effect on interstate commerce. Hill relied on those cases — U.S. v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995) and U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000) — in justifying why Ballinger’s case did not trigger the federal church arson law. Hill said there was an important difference between channels of interstate commerce, such as highways and waterways that courts agree are under congressional powers, and activities that may affect interstate commerce. “To allow Congress to regulate local crime on a theory of its aggregate effect on the national economy would give Congress a free hand to regulate any activity, since, in the modern world, virtually all crimes have at least some attenuated impact on the national economy,” Hill wrote. For Congress to regulate local crimes such as arson, Hill added, the crimes “substantially” must affect interstate commerce — a conclusion he and Birch could not make in the case of Ballinger’s church burnings. They rejected federal prosecutors’ arguments that the churches’ donations from out-of-state donors and use of prayer books and Bibles bought from out-of-state vendors attested to their effect on interstate commerce. Only three of the five churches had out-of-state members, Hill added, explaining why that argument, too, was dismissed. “Although the destruction of these churches undoubtedly had economic consequences,” he concluded, “the mere existence of such consequences does not trigger” the church arson statute, 18 U.S.C. � 247 (d) (1). CROSSING STATE LINES In her dissent, Hall said that Ballinger’s travel across state lines was enough to establish that his crimes affected interstate commerce. Hall noted that courts had not settled on what activities in fact “substantially affect” interstate commerce. “However, it must at least include the destruction of buildings that are actively and regularly employed in interstate commerce,” she added. Paul S. Kish of the federal defender’s office represented Ballinger. He could not be reached to discuss the case. Christopher A. Wray represented the federal government, but he since has been promoted out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta to associate deputy attorney general of the Justice Department in Washington. A spokesman in the Atlanta office noted that only two of the judges agreed with the decision, suggesting prosecutors may ask the full 11th Circuit to review the case. “The office will be seeking to pursue other legal opportunities,” the spokesman added. Banks County, Ga., District Attorney Timothy G. Madison, who would have jurisdiction over the Commerce arson that resulted in the firefighter’s death, could not be reached to discuss whether he would bring state charges against Ballinger.

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