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Does DOJ have ‘anti-Catholic bias’? Josh Hawley presses Merrick Garland.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) accused the Justice Department of anti-Catholic bias while questioning Attorney General Merrick Garland on March 1. (Video: The Washington Post)
11 min

“Attorney General Garland, let me just ask you, does your department have a problem with anti-Catholic bias?”

— Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), at a Senate hearing, March 1

Hawley and a number of other Republican senators confronted Attorney General Merrick Garland at a recent Senate hearing with allegations that the Biden administration has an anti-Catholic agenda. Hawley’s exchange with Garland about two incidents — an FBI memo on recruiting sources in the Catholic Church, and the arrest of an antiabortion activist — was especially prosecutorial and quickly went viral on social media.

This is one of those instances in which something may be well-covered in right-wing media and virtually ignored by more mainstream news outlets. For readers unfamiliar with the news reports, it might seem strange that an administration led by a president who is a practicing Catholic is accused of being anti-Catholic. But President Biden also supports abortion rights, which Catholic doctrine rejects. At their heart, both incidents raised by Hawley concern the battle over abortion.

The Catholic vote is critical in some battleground states. Edison exit polls in 2020 found that Biden narrowly beat Donald Trump among Catholics, 52 percent to 47 percent. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among Catholics, 50 percent to 46 percent. That shift may have cost Trump Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2020 — states he narrowly won in 2016 — said Gallup senior scientist Frank Newport. So Republicans’ charges of anti-Catholic bias have electoral implications.

At the hearing, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also challenged Garland over why the Justice Department appeared to have prosecuted more people for blocking access to abortion clinics than for attacking antiabortion pregnancy resource centers. Both actions can lead to fines or jail time under the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

Lee, along with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), suggested the disparity was because of politicization. “There are two tiers of justice,” claimed Blackburn: one for the right and one for the left. Garland replied that the difference was that abortion clinics are blocked during the day, while attacks on antiabortion centers often happen at night, making it harder to catch people in the act.

“I will say you are quite right — there are many more prosecutions with respect to the blocking of the abortion centers — but that is generally because they are, those actions are taken in, with photography at the time, during the daylight. And seeing the person who did it is quite easy,” Garland said. “Those who are attacking the pregnancy resources centers, which is a horrible thing to do, are doing this at night, in the dark.”

Indeed, it’s hard to compile comparative numbers on the two types of attacks, which vary in severity. The House of Representatives passed a resolution on Jan. 11 listing 39 attacks — mainly vandalism with graffiti promoting abortion rights — against antiabortion facilities, groups and churches between May 2, when a leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that ended a nationwide right to abortion was published in the media, and Oct. 8. The Justice Department in October said that at that point in 2022, 26 people had been charged with or pleaded guilty to violating the FACE Act. Violations included people using chains and locks to physically obstruct clinic staff and patients during the blockade of a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic.

One prosecution that backfired on DOJ was that of Mark Houck, an antiabortion activist who was found not guilty in January on federal assault charges concerning a shoving incident with an abortion clinic escort in Philadelphia. Hawley noted that local prosecutors had declined to prosecute Houck and that a private lawsuit by the clinic escort, Bruce Love, had been dismissed, but then DOJ brought charges anyway. During the trial, U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert, a Barack Obama appointee, referred to the FACE Act and asked prosecutors: “Doesn’t that statute seem to be stretched a little thin here?” The jury issued a quick acquittal.

At issue is the arrest of Houck in September. Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) both suggested that Houck and his family were terrorized by the show of force by federal agents. We will also explore another issue raised by Hawley: a memo issued by the FBI office in Richmond.

Houck’s arrest

Hawley’s statement: “Your Justice Department sent between 20 and 30 armed agents in the early-morning hours to the Houcks’ private residence to arrest this guy after he had offered to turn himself in voluntarily. Here’s the photo. Once again, you can see the long guns, you can see the ballistic shields, you can see that they’re wearing bulletproof vests. Why did the Justice Department do this? Why did you send 20 to 30 SWAT-style agents in a SWAT-style team to this guy’s house when everybody else had declined to prosecute and he’d offered to turn himself in?”

Garland’s response: “All I know is what the FBI has said, which was that they made decisions on the ground as to what was safest and easiest. … I’m saying the facts are not as you describe.” He referred to an FBI statement at the time.

The FBI statement, Sept. 26: “There are inaccurate claims being made regarding the arrest of Mark Houck. No SWAT team or SWAT operators were involved. FBI agents knocked on Mr. Houck’s front door, identified themselves as FBI agents, and asked him to exit the residence. He did so and was taken into custody without incident pursuant to an indictment. Extensive planning takes place prior to the service of any federal warrant. The FBI then employs the personnel and tactics deemed necessary to effect a safe arrest or search. While it’s the FBI’s standard practice not to discuss such operational specifics, we can say that the number of personnel and vehicles widely reported as being on scene Friday is an overstatement, and the tactics used by FBI personnel were professional, in line with standard practices, and intended to ensure the safety of everyone present in and outside the residence.”

Assessment: The initial reports of a SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team came from Houck’s wife in interviews with a variety of antiabortion websites, such as LifeSite News. But she also emphasized how out-of-proportion the force seemed. “It had to have been 20, 25, 30” FBI agents, Ryan-Marie Houck told Fox News on Sept. 28. “We have a large property; my entire front yard, you could barely see it. It was covered with at least 15 big trucks and cars. And there were … 20, 25, 30 — men, women — completely in jackets with shields and helmets and guns and they were behind cars. It was something I never would expect to see on my front lawn.”

Family members — the Houcks have seven young children — said the 7 a.m. encounter was frightening. “I woke up and the girls were outside the door crying,” Joshua, 9, told the Daily Signal. “And I asked them what was wrong and they didn’t answer, and I looked down the stairs and I saw guns pointing at Mommy and Daddy.”

After Houck was acquitted, he told the podcast “War Room” that he was speaking to lawyers about the actions of the agents who arrested him.

While the FBI statement disputes whether the arresting officers were part of a SWAT team, it does not address the weapons or gear worn at the time or provide a precise number of people involved. (Hawley carefully said they were “SWAT-style agents.”) FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, in an interview on Fox News the day before Garland’s testimony, said: “Even a white-collar arrest, there are situations where white-collar arrests have resulted in shootings. So, there is a whole lot of things that goes into the judgment about what is the way to conduct arrests safely and securely that are made, I think, appropriately by the career agents on the ground, who have the closest visibility to the circumstances.”

FBI memo

Hawley’s statement: “The FBI field office in Richmond, on the 23rd of January of this year, issued a memorandum in which they advocated for and I quote, ‘the exploration of new avenues for tripwire and source development’ against traditionalist Catholics. It’s there in plain language, ‘including those who favor the Latin Mass.’”

Garland’s response: “It’s appalling. It’s appalling. I’m in complete agreement with you. I understand that the FBI has withdrawn it and it’s now looking into how this could ever have happened.”

FBI statement, Feb. 9: “While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, this particular field office product — disseminated only within the FBI — regarding racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI. Upon learning of the document, FBI Headquarters quickly began taking action to remove the document from FBI systems and conduct a review of the basis for the document. The FBI is committed to sound analytic tradecraft and to investigating and preventing acts of violence and other crimes while upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and will never conduct investigative activities or open an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity.”

Assessment: A redacted copy of the FBI intelligence memo, issued Jan. 23, was first posted on Feb. 8 by former FBI agent Kyle Seraphin on a conservative news site. The memo suggested that “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists (RMVE)” might be found among what it called “Radical-Traditionalist Catholics” (RTC), whom it said are “typically characterized by the rejection of the Second Vatican Council,” such as preferring services in Latin. (The National Catholic Register newspaper estimates that U.S. Catholics who regularly attend the traditional Latin Mass make up fewer than one 1 percent of 21 million regularly Mass-going Catholics.) The document — which in a footnote drew a distinction between traditionalist Catholics who are and aren’t radicalized — said the radicalized ones also adhere to an “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and white supremacy” ideology. The memo said “legislative and judicial decisions in such areas as abortion rights” may be “catalyzing events” for right-wing extremism but that the FBI could mitigate the threat by recruiting sources within traditionalist Catholic parishes.

The memo sparked an instant uproar among Catholic leaders and Republican officials, who suggested it showed anti-Catholic bigotry. “The leaked memo from our state capital’s FBI office is unacceptable, unconstitutional, and un-American,” said Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, the lead signer of a letter to Wray from 20 state attorneys general. “Frankly, it’s what I would expect from Communist Cuba.”

The FBI has a troubled history of surveilling and infiltrating religious groups, such as Muslims, that it considers dangerous. But some religious scholars, while not excusing the law enforcement implications of the memo, said its analysis of the nexus between far-right Catholics and far-right extremism has merit.

Matthew Gabriele, chair of the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, said in an email that the memo was not about all Catholics but a small subset of what the memo called “radical-traditionalist Catholics” — people who reject current church teaching, embrace Latin Mass, disdain Pope Francis and are outspoken in their antisemitism. “I’m not sure how pervasive a problem this is overall but I do think the trend toward extremism among some (again, some) of these radical Catholics is troubling,” he wrote.

“An honest reckoning of our history demands that white Catholics confront the clear and present danger that racist, right-wing, and Christian nationalist forces pose to our church and the future of our democracy,” wrote Matthew J. Cressler, associate professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston, in a March 3 article for U.S. Catholic, a liberal-leaning magazine published by the Claretian Missionaries. “This memo suggesting that the FBI target and surveil Catholics is troubling. It is equally troubling that there are more and more Catholics who find white Christian nationalism compelling.”

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