(Screenshot of United Christian Church of Miles City’s Facebook page.)
The Miles City Police Department is investigating the vandalism of a rainbow flag at the United Christian Church as a possible hate crime, Capt. Dan Baker said Tuesday.
“We have two or three leads that we’re following,” Baker said. “We take it very seriously. We’ll investigate it to its fullest.”
Monday, he said law enforcement officers responded to a call about a rainbow flag being ripped up at the Miles City church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ.
The church is “open and affirming,” or supportive of members who are LGBTQ+.
Baker said police also found at the scene a homemade banner draped over the church’s marquee.
“There were some Old Testament verses on there that could definitely be construed as being anti-gay,” Baker said.
He said charges could include vandalism and malicious intimidation but will ultimately be based on the evidence and be up to the county prosecutor.
Malicious intimidation comes with a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both.
In a social media post, the church described the incident and said the vandalism occurred Sunday night.
“A sign was placed over our sign with an anti-LGBTQIA+ message,” the post said. “Our rainbow flag was ripped up and replaced with an American flag.”
The post said cameras would soon be installed, and the church would be replacing the damaged flag and ordering more.
“This is sad, that there are those in our community who choose hate over love,” the post said. “Our message of radical love for all people will never be silenced.”
In a phone call, Rev. Amber Dixson said the vandalism was “unusual but not surprising.”
She said Miles City is a more conservative area, although she also said the flag has been flying for several years without incident.
“There was a lot of frustration and anger and sadness that something like this had happened,” Dixson said.
But Dixson also said the church put up another rainbow flag Monday afternoon as soon as the police had finished their work at the scene.
A semi-retired pastor and spouse who run the local winery had ordered a new rainbow flag to replace their fading one, and Dixson said they offered it to the church instead.
She said she believes the vandal, or vandals, are younger, maybe in their 20s, based on the painting and the way the culprit accessed the roof because it’s not easily accessible.
“(I hope) they realize that this isn’t funny,” Dixson said. “We won’t be silenced. And … I hope they don’t carry this further.”
Roughly 15 or 16 people regularly attend church, but more watch services on Facebook, Dixson said.
However, she also said many people in the community have reached out to support the church and have told her it is a beacon.
“The responses we received tell me there’s a lot of people who honor our stand in the community who will never see the inside of a church — and that’s fine — but know that we are there and what we stand for.”
The perpetrator hurt a lot of people’s feelings, she said, but the church will continue to put out its message of “love over hate.”
In one of the responses to the post, Rev. Laura Folkwein of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ Bozeman offered support to Miles City.
“Our rainbow flag gets stolen sometimes, and it’s no fun,” Folkwein wrote. “Your message of love is louder and will last longer than hate. Stay strong and stay loving! We will pray for you at Pilgrim UCC in Bozeman.”
In an interview, Folkwein said the Bozeman church’s rainbow flag hangs outside next to an American flag. She said it’s been stolen three times in the past year.
“We just keep a stash of replacements,” Folkwein said. “And often we just say, ‘Well, it looks like somebody needed some color in their life.’”
Folkwein said the number of thefts the past year is higher than in the past, and she believes it’s because people are more polarized.
She also said legislation this year against drag shows and people who are transgender added fuel to the fire.
But Folkwein also said the thefts underscore the need for the work of the church and its message of love and hope.
“It really just emphasizes the need for a mission like ours, which is about love and inclusion and welcome for everyone,” Folkwein said.
In Miles City, Baker said anyone who has information about the incident should contact law enforcement. Police can be reached at (406) 234-6273 or at https://milescitypolice.org/contact/.
He said hate crimes are serious and also not commonly reported to local law enforcement.
“This is very unusual for Miles City,” Baker said.
MCA 45-5-221. Malicious intimidation or harassment relating to civil or human rights — penalty. (1) A person commits the offense of malicious intimidation or harassment when, because of another person’s race, creed, religion, color, national origin, or involvement in civil rights or human rights activities, the person purposely or knowingly, with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy, or offend:
(a) causes bodily injury to another;
(b) causes reasonable apprehension of bodily injury in another; or
(c) damages, destroys, or defaces any property of another or any public property.
(2) For purposes of this section, “deface” includes but is not limited to cross burning or the placing of any word or symbol commonly associated with racial, religious, or ethnic identity or activities on the property of another person without the other person’s permission.
(3) A person convicted of the offense of malicious intimidation or harassment shall be imprisoned in the state prison for a term not to exceed 5 years or be fined an amount not to exceed $5,000, or both.
Editor’s note: Amber Dixson’s name has been corrected in this story.
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