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Man charged with firebombing church that hosted drag story hour

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An Ohio man has been arrested after using Molotov cocktails last month in an unsuccessful attempt to burn down a church before it could host a drag queen story event.

Aimenn D. Penny, 20, was arrested last Friday and charged with one count of possessing a destructive device and one count of malicious use of explosive materials for his attack on the Community Church of Chesterland on March 25. 

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio said in a statement released last Friday that ideological disagreements should never be resolved through violence.

“Violence and destruction are never an acceptable way to express a disagreement with a particular viewpoint,” Baeppler stated. “While, as Americans, we enjoy the right to disagree, doing so peacefully is the only appropriate option.”

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio remains committed to protecting the rights of all citizens to express their viewpoints peacefully.”

The arrest came through a joint effort by the FBI Cleveland Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Chester Township Police Department, according to Special Agent in Charge Gregory Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office.

“The FBI leveraged its task force and its specialized resources to identify, locate and subsequently arrest the subject earlier today,” said Nelsen.

“We thank the collaborative work and strong partnership of the Chester Township Police and Lake and Geauga County local authorities who assisted.”

If convicted, Penny faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for the malicious use of explosive materials charge, with as many as 10 years in prison for possessing a destructive device charge.

Community Church, which belongs to the theologically liberal United Church of Christ, took to Facebook to thank authorities for their help in providing additional security for the drag queen story hour event, which took place on Saturday.

“The number of cruisers we hear were present, the ‘swat-style’ vans, the Chagrin Falls’ tactical mobile unit’ which we were told was parked nearby … this overwhelming presence would have put caution in the mind of any group hoping to make an opportunistic threat,” the church stated.

“Taking the preparations made by our own team with the Fairmount team, together with the law enforcement contingent, helped make the day a resounding success! And the only memory resulting from the day’s event at the church was Joy and Love! So much Love!”

In an earlier statement, Community Church said that while they were “sorry this happened and forgive the individual in question,” they also believed that he should be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as a way to send a message to other like minded people and groups that violence as a form of coercion to advance any kind of agenda is unacceptable in 2023.”

Community Church is located about a half-hour drive from the UCC’s national headquarters in Cleveland and planned a two-part “Drag Brunch and Story Hour” in partnership with a local restaurant, Element 41, according to the UCC website

“Community Church of Chesterland has been Open and Affirming for 30 years,” Pastor Jess Peacock said in a statement. “There are a lot of churches in the UCC that have become Open and Affirming. But we have been feeling we need to move beyond the words’ open and affirming’ to ‘open and celebrating.'”

Cleveland.com reports that one protester demonstrated outside the church Saturday and a small group protested outside the restaurant. No violent confrontations occurred, but a non-credible bomb threat was also reported at one of the companion brunches.  

In recent years, much controversy has surrounded events for children that feature drag queens, especially when public libraries host story hours featuring men in drag and bars host drag shows attended by children. 

According to a Rasmussen Reports poll last November, 60% of American adults consider “Drag Queen Story Hour” events to be inappropriate for children, while 29% said they were appropriate and 10% said they were unsure.

Last month, Forsyth Technical Community College of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, garnered controversy when a video was posted online showing a female student receiving a lap dance from a drag performer during an LGBT pride event open to high school students.

In response to the backlash over the incident, Forsyth Tech Chief Officer of Student Success and Strategic Innovation Paula Dibley announced that the school would consider revising its policies for campus events. 

“Parents of children under 18 were not notified of this event in advance,” Dibley said. “We have been in close contact with our early college school leadership and are talking with both leaders and parents about how we can revise campus policies and procedures regarding early and middle college students’ attendance at campus events.” 

Last month, Tennessee passed a law that criminalizes “adult cabaret” performances on public property or in locations where children can view them. The law defines “adult cabaret performance” as a show that involves exotic or topless dancers, strippers, go-go dancers, or male and female impersonators providing entertainment that “appeals to a prurient interest.” 

The law drew criticism from Democrats, including former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

“It’s a very sad commentary on what people think is important in our country,” Clinton told The New York Times. “I hope that it goes the way of the dinosaur because people will recognize that it’s just a political stunt.”

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