With pastors joining in a call for mercy, a judge sentenced three former college students to federal prison Monday for a rash of rural church fires that began as a prank during a night of drinking.

Matthew Cloyd, 21, and Benjamin Moseley, 20, were sentenced to eight years each for the blazes, which terrorized rural, church-centered communities for weeks last year. Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., 20, wasn't involved in all the fires and was sentenced to seven years.

U.S. District Judge David Proctor also ordered $3.1 million in restitution payments by Cloyd and Moseley and $1.9 million by DeBusk. Following their release, each man must perform 300 hours of community service work at the burned-out churches.

Dressed in orange jail uniforms with shackles around their feet, each man apologized for the blazes, set during a night of underage drinking and illicit hunting. Standing at a podium with his hands folded behind him, Cloyd expressed remorse for all the pain and destruction caused by the spree.

"I'm truly sorry for that," he said quietly. "I'm ready to accept the consequences of my actions."

DeBusk told the judge the three decided to break into a single church and set plastic plants on fire during a night of cruising the countryside and drinking.

"A snowball effect happened as we proceeded to set four more churches on fire," said DeBusk. Three days later, Cloyd and Moseley set four more fires in a bid to throw agents off their trail.

After the hearing, the pastor of one of the churches that was destroyed hugged the defendants' parents.

"He'll be all right. We are here for you," the Rev. Jim Parker of Ashby Baptist Church told DeBusk's father.

The minister of Dancy First Baptist Church, the Rev. Walter Hawkins, asked the judge for leniency and said his congregation has forgiven the three. Hawkins said he hoped the men do not receive additional prison time in state court, where they are due for a hearing later this week.

"I really don't think more time is needed," Hawkins said outside the courthouse.

Five churches were set ablaze in Bibb County about 45 miles south of Birmingham on Feb. 3, 2006. Four other churches were burned four days later in three western counties near the Mississippi line.

Investigators captured the three after linking tire tracks left at the scene to the tires on a sport-utility vehicle driven by Cloyd.

In letters of support to the judge, relatives and friends described the defendants as bright young men who were led astray by alcohol and their peers. The courtroom was filled with friends and relatives of the defendants, pastors and a few church members.

Cloyd was studying to be a physician's assistant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Moseley and DeBusk were theater majors attending school on scholarships at Birmingham-Southern College, which Cloyd used to attend.

Proctor said no one will ever understand why three top students from solid families would torch churches. He praised the congregations for their resiliency and faith and told the defendants' parents to quit blaming themselves for what happened.

"This isn't your fault. By all indications you raised these boys well and they knew better," Proctor said.

All three men also face state charges, and they are due in court in Bibb County on Thursday for a hearing on whether they will be granted youthful offender status, a move that would lessen their state punishment.

District Attorney Michael Jackson expects the request to be denied. He and other local prosecutors are seeking time in state prison for the three after they finish their federal sentences.