Poway Synagogue Attacker Pleads Guilty, Faces Additional Federal Charges

July 22, 2021, Washington, D.C.  The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) welcomes the successful prosecution of the assailant who opened fire at a California synagogue in April 2019. Yesterday, John T. Earnest pleaded guilty in San Diego Superior Court to all state charges, including murder and attempted murder, and arson for setting fire to a mosque in a nearby city a month prior to the shooting. The judge is expected to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Violent attacks motivated by hatred for religious believers inflict death, injury, and immeasurable emotional suffering. For the religious communities targeted, they also impede the free and full exercise of their faith,” remarked RFI President Tom Farr. “If we are to continue to be a nation that values religious freedom, we must remain committed to responding to such attacks as forcefully as the law permits,” Farr continued.

In a concurrent federal case, Earnest faces more than 100 charges, including one based on a federal law forbidding the “obstruction of persons in the free exercise of religious beliefs.” According to this provision, no one may “[intentionally obstruct] by force or threat of force, including by threat of force against religious real property, any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs, or attempts to do so…”

Earnest violently assaulted congregants of the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Poway on April 27, 2019, the last day of Passover. He killed one congregant and wounded three others, including a child and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who lost fingers on both hands when he confronted the shooter. Earnest’s rifle malfunctioned not long after he began shooting, and two congregants intervened, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent who returned fire, cutting short what could have been an even more devastating incident. RFI had the honor of hosting Rabbi Goldstein to speak about the attack and his congregation’s response to it several weeks after it occurred.

In his guilty plea and in an open letter he posted online before the synagogue attack, Earnest admitted that his hatred of Jews and Muslims motivated him. His 2019 attacks are counted among a string of violent episodes against religious communities in recent years – in Pittsburgh, New Zealand, Sri LankaNew York, Texas, and elsewhere – in which assailants targeted religious congregants with mass violence or desecrated religious sites.

“The prosecution of this case shows that the perpetration of violence against religious Americans receives no government sanction in the United States, but it also reminds us yet again that ideological hostility toward Jews and Muslims persists even in America,” said Ismail Royer, Director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team. “We must confront all ideologies that dehumanize members of a particular faith community and their failure to recognize the God-given human dignity we all share.”

Media Contact:
Nathan Berkeley

The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) works to secure religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. RFI is a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C.