BIBB COUNTY, Ala.: Arson destroys rural churches

Beginning Feb. 9 and lasting through the weekend, 10 Baptist churches burned, with six fires reported in 24 hours.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) sent in 35 agents to investigate. “Of course it’s arson,” said Jim Cavanaugh, ATF’s regional director, “you don’t have accidental fires at six churches.” ATF has also brought in several bomb squads.

Although the churches, all Baptist, served Black and white parishioners, a resurgence of racist violence that sparked headlines in 1999 has not been ruled out.

The Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church in Antioch, founded in 1891, was on the national registry of historic places. “It burned all the way to the ground,” said the Rev. Robert E. Murphy Sr., the church’s pastor. “Nothing’s salvageable. We know it was arson.”

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.: High heating bills hit the South

Residents rallied in Kelly Ingram Park Feb. 4 to demand the state government control skyrocketing heating bills. State Sen. Sundra Escott (D-Birmingham) said that home heating is a moral issue and promised quick action in the Legislature. The number of families who have had their heat shut off through the end of January outstrips the state’s ability to process their applications for grants to pay their bills.

“We must find a way to help while the gas is still on,” she said.

On Oct. 1, gas companies raised their rates by 36.7 percent.

With natural gas prices spiking across the country with a relatively mild winter so far, even southern states are taking a big hit. In Louisville, the school district has spent $845,000 to keep the heat on in schools. The Jessamine County school district has been forced to cut maintenance projects to pay their $296,000 bill to the private gas company.

CHARLESTON, W.Va.: Wounded Iraq vet gets bill for body armor

A year ago, 1st Lt. William ‘Eddie’ Rebrook IV, an honors graduate of West Point, had his arm shattered by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The medics pulled off his body armor to save his life.

Since then he has undergone seven surgeries, and after eight months recovering at Fort Hood, he was set to come home. When he turned in his gear, the Army presented him with a bill for $700 to pay for his destroyed body armor, threatening him with continuing red tape that might last months or a year. Rebrook scrounged up the cash and returned home Feb. 8.

“It’s outrageous, ridiculous and unconscionable,” said Becky Drumheler, his mother. “I wanted to stand on a street corner and yell through a megaphone about this.”

Lt. Rebrook said that he knows other soldiers who have had to pay for equipment destroyed in battle. “It’s a combat loss,” he said. “It shouldn’t be passed on to the soldier. If a soldier’s stuff is hit by enemy fire, he shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

ANNAPOLIS, Md.: Retail Industry Group sues to halt health care

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry organization representing companies that operate more than 100,000 stores with more than $1.4 trillion in annual sales, filed suit seeking to overturn a Maryland law requiring Wal-Mart to increase spending on health care for workers.

The group said that the Maryland law requiring Wal-Mart to spend 8 percent of the payroll to pay for health insurance “threatens flexibility businesses need to deal with their employees.”

Chris Kofinis, spokesman for the union-based Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign, which spearheaded the Legislature’s action, predicted that the Maryland law would survive the legal action. “The Maryland bill is a responsible piece of legislation that will make sure that large employers live up to their health care responsibilities. Overwhelmingly, Marylanders supported this legislation.”

National Clips are compiled by Denise Winebrenner Edwards (