Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday fielded questions from lawmakers regarding alleged anti-Catholic, anti-pro-life bias within the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In his responses to questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general called a now-retracted Richmond FBI memo that suggested investigating traditionalist Catholics for possible ties to domestic terrorists “appalling.”
Garland also defended the DOJ and FBI during heated exchanges with Republicans over whether federal agencies are biased against the pro-life movement in their enforcement of federal laws.
The FBI memo and allegations of anti-Catholic bias
In response to questioning from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, Garland denounced a memo from the FBI’s Richmond division, which detailed a strategy to investigate a link between “radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology” and “the far-right white nationalist movement.”
The now-retracted memo discussed investigating Catholic parishes that offer the Traditional Latin Mass and certain Catholic online communities. The document cited a list from the Southern Poverty Law Center to determine which organizations adhere to “radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology.”
Hawley asked Garland whether the Department of Justice is “cultivating sources and spies in Latin Mass parishes and other Catholic parishes around the country.”
“The Justice Department does not do that,” Garland said. “It does not do investigations based on religion. I saw the document you have. 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 I understand that the FBI has withdrawn it and it’s now looking into how this could ever have happened.”
Hawley pressed the issue further, asking Garland how many informants the FBI has in Catholic churches.
“I don’t know and I don’t believe we have any informants aimed at Catholic churches,” Garland responded. “We have a rule against investigations based on First Amendment activity and Catholic churches are obviously First Amendment activity. But I don’t know the specific answer to that question.”
Hawley criticized Garland for not providing a definitive answer to the question.
“You don’t know the specifics of anything it seems, but apparently on your watch, this Justice Department is targeting Catholics, targeting people of faith, specifically for their faith views,” Hawley said. “And Mr. Attorney General, I’ll just say to you, it’s a disgrace.”
Alleged targeting of pro-life activists
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Garland to account for a disparity in the number of prosecutions of pro-life activists and pro-abortion activists under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The FACE Act made it a federal crime to impede access to a pro-life pregnancy center or abortion clinic.
Lee noted that there have been 81 reported attacks on pro-life pregnancy centers “and only two individuals have been charged” with violating the FACE Act. Meanwhile, he said, 34 pro-life activists have been charged for blocking access to or vandalizing abortion clinics.
Garland acknowledged the disparity in prosecutions and attributed it to pro-life activists’ tendency to operate openly, in the light of day.
“There are many more prosecutions with respect to the blocking of the abortion centers, but that is generally because those actions are taken with photography at the time, during the daylight and seeing the person who did it is quite easy,” Garland responded.
“Those who are attacking the pregnancy resource centers, which is a horrid thing to do, are doing this at night in the dark. We have put full resources on this. We have put rewards out for this,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, contrasted the lack of prosecutions involving crimes against pro-life pregnancy centers with the FBI’s arrest of Mark Houck, a pro-life activist charged by the FBI for allegedly violating the FACE Act but acquitted on all counts.
“Two dozen agents clad in body armor and ballistic helmets and shields and a battering ram showed up at his house pointing rifles at his family,” Cruz said.
Garland responded by stating “the decisions about how to do that are made at the level of the FBI agents on scene” and “my understanding is the FBI disagrees with that description.”