Black Churches Face Insurance Troubles Claims to Cover Arson Damage Paid Late; the, Policies Canceled

Article excerpt

When arson severely damaged the Salem Baptist Church in Humboldt, Tenn., on Dec. 30, worshipers thought life couldn't get any worse. The sole saving grace, in hindsight, was the flames' merciful swiftness - because what followed was a protracted struggle by the church to collect on its insurance policy and rebuild.

It took five months to get the final installment of the $185,000 insurance payment. Then, a week later, the insurer canceled coverage.

Insurance problems have emerged as secondary grief for many of the more than 40 black churches that have been damaged or destroyed by fire across the South in the last 18 months.

Some black ministers say insurers have interrogated them as arson suspects and routinely procrastinated on paying claims. In a number of cases, insurers have refused to renew policies.

An added insult to blacks is their perception that the many white churches burned over the same period are receiving kid-glove treatment from insurers. A spot check by The Associated Press lends credence to the complaints, indicating that after white church arsons, insurers paid claims promptly and earned high marks from pastors for courtesy and efficiency.

Of 10 burned black churches and eight white churches contacted by the AP, five had their insurance dropped - all of them black.

Insurance complaints have been serious enough to draw an investigation by Robert George, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. George says he will refer any evidence of impropriety to the Justice Department.

Insurance professionals deny discrimination. They express eagerness to write church policies and say it's unlikely that any church - black or white - would be denied.

But the AP's check of victimized churches indicates otherwise:

Salem Baptist, Humboldt, Tenn.: Policy canceled by Preferred Risk Mutual Insurance Co. of Des Moines, Iowa.

The black church paid premiums of less than $1,000 a year, which proved to be "a thoroughly unprofitable relationship" for Preferred Risk, said Thomas Farr, vice president and general counsel. "In the six years we insured them, we've paid just under $190,000 in claims." That includes the $185,000 paid on the arson claim.

Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Bolivar, Tenn. …


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