WASHINGTON, July 3 -- As he promised, President Clinton Wednesday signed a bill expanding local and federal authority to investigate and prosecute church arsonists. The legislation, which comes in response to more than 40 suspicious fires at predominantly black churches in the South, had bipartisan support in Congress, which approved the bill last week. 'I applaud the Congress' swift, unanimous, and bipartisan passage of this bill,' Clinton said in a statement. The president said he will congratulate Congress during a formal ceremony in the near future. The House adopted the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by the unlikely combination of Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C. It raises federal penalties for those convicted of church arson from 10 to 20 years imprisonment, and broadens the statute of limitations for such crimes from five to seven years. The Faircloth-Kennedy bill also authorizes as much as $5 million to the Justice and Treasury Departments for additional investigators, and for programs to train local law enforcement agencies in arson prevention and investigative procedures. In addition, the bill would allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to set up a low-interest loan program for the reconstruction of churches whose congregations could not afford to insure their property. The estimated $5 million in HUD money will not have to be appropriated, but will instead be diverted from the funds the department already has at its disposal. Meanwhile, as state prosecutors gathered Tuesday in Washington to discuss with community and religious leaders the fires at predominantly black churches, President Clinton announced he wants another $6 million to bolster the effort to halt the wave of arsons in southern states.
Clinton told reporters he needs the additional federal funds to hire more police and increase lighting and surveillance around churches. The president called on Congress to act quickly to approve the $6 million, which will bolster efforts in 12 states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia. So far, Clinton has requested about $26 million to counter the spree of racially motivated arson fires that have erupted at the churches.