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HOUSE RACES TO HELP PUT OUT CHURCH FIRES

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With legislation racing through Congress to enhance federal law enforcement powers, President Clinton is meeting with seven Southern governors at the White House to outline steps to fight an epidemic of church fires.

Clinton is to spell out plans to increase the budget of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms by $12 million to intensify federal efforts against the fires aimed mostly at black churches in the South.The White House said governors attending the meeting were Paul Patton of Kentucky, Parris Glendening of Maryland, Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Gaston Caperton of West Virginia, all Democrats; and Republicans George Allen of Virginia, Don Sundquist of Tennessee and David Beasley of South Carolina.

Representing Florida was the state's lieutenant governor, Democrat Buddy McKay.

White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the administration is also asking the Justice Department to reallocate about $9.5 million from its 1996 budget "principally to investigate each of the arson incidents."

The House on Tuesday voted 422-0 to give federal officials more authority to investigate and prosecute crimes against religious property.

The bill eliminates a $10,000 minimum property damage thres-hold for initiating a federal investigation and changes current law to broaden federal rights to intervene on the basis of criminal acts involving interstate commerce.

The measure, which Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said would be taken up soon in the Senate, also allows victims of church burnings to be compensated from the Crime Victims Trust Fund set up in 1994.

It amends current law to make it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its racial or ethnic character. Now, federal violations only apply to cases of damage because of the religious character of property. The bill applies to all religious property, not just black churches.

Fire heavily damaged a black church on Maryland's Eastern Shore early Wednesday. But state officials said the fire at the St. John's United Methodist Church in Berlin, Md., was sparked accidentally by an electrical problem.