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DOJ sued for lack of transparency in response to violence targeting pro-life groups, churches

The entrance signage for the United States Department of Justice Building in Washington D.C. The Department of Justice, the U.S. law enforcement and administration of Justice government agency.
The entrance signage for the United States Department of Justice Building in Washington D.C. The Department of Justice, the U.S. law enforcement and administration of Justice government agency. | Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice is being sued over what plaintiffs describe as an inadequate response to violence against churches and pro-life pregnancy centers as pro-abortion vandalism continues across the United States. 

The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and Mike Pence's advocacy organization Advancing American Freedom filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department in federal court Monday. The complaint maintains that the federal law enforcement agency has taken insufficient action to address violence directed at churches and pro-life pregnancy centers in recent years, including some that have been firebombed. 

As outlined the in the legal filing, the advocacy group CatholicVote first wrote a letter to the DOJ's Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke in December 2021, outlining "concerns over the disturbing increase in attacks against Catholic symbols, shrines, statues and churches across the United States over the past year." Clarke asked the department to "investigate these complaints and take appropriate action."

Six months later, CatholicVote spearheaded another letter to the DOJ expressing concern about "the increased attacks against churches, pregnancy resource centers and pro-life organizations in the aftermath of the leaked draft opinion in the [U.S.] Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization." The unprecedented leak revealed that a majority of justices were poised to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately determined that the U.S. Constitution does not contain a right to abortion when it released the Dobbs decision on June 24, overruling Roe. The vandalism against churches and pro-life pregnancy centers has continued over the past several months. According to a report from the Christian conservative organization Family Research Council, there were at least 57 church vandalism incidents from January 2022 to September 2022 directly tied to pro-abortion protests or contained pro-abortion messages. 

Three months after the Dobbs decision, on Sept. 30, the plaintiffs joined several other advocacy organizations, including CatholicVote, in sending a Freedom of Information Act request to the DOJ. The request noted that the department had "repeatedly failed to respond" to CatholicVote's concerns.

Other groups that joined the FOIA request include Americans United for Life, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, Concerned Women for America, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Family Research Council, Students for Life Action and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

The FOIA request highlighted "serious concerns that the work of the DOJ is being inappropriately politicized, as investigations into these acts of violence against organizations disfavored by the current administration are being slow-walked or outright ignored."

The request also sought records related to or containing "communications internal to the DOJ on the subject of crimes or investigations (potential or otherwise) of crimes against pro-life organizations" as well as communications between the DOJ and the Domestic Policy Council or the Executive Office of the President on the same subject matter.

On Feb. 27, nearly five months after the plaintiffs and the other organizations submitted the FOIA request, the FBI informed them that it had closed the request because it did not "contain enough descriptive information to permit a search of our records." The complaint characterized the defendants' failure to respond to the FOIA request as a violation of federal law and DOJ regulations.

The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to "order defendant to conduct a search or searches reasonably calculated to uncover all records responsive to Plaintiffs' FOIA Request" and produce all relevant documents within 20 days of the court order.

They are also asking the federal court to prevent the DOJ from "continuing to withhold any and all non-exempt records responsive to plaintiffs' FOIA Requests," prevent the defendant from "assessing fees or costs" for the FOIA request and grant the plaintiffs their costs and attorney's fees.

In a statement, Advancing American Freedom General Counsel J. Marc Wheat concluded that "President [Joe] Biden's politicized Department of Justice is fearful of igniting the wrath of the Far Left and abortion extremists."

"The American people have a right to know why those who burned and vandalized pregnancy centers have not been held accountable for their violence against traditional conservatives and pro-life groups," Wheat said. 

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution earlier this year declaring that "the Biden administration has failed to take action to respond to the radical attacks on pro-life facilities, groups, and churches, or to protect the rights of these organizations."

While the FBI did announce a $25,000 reward for information on the perpetrators of the firebombing of CompassCare in Buffalo, New York, the CEO of the network of pro-life pregnancy centers across upstate New York believes that the effort does not go far enough. CompassCare CEO Jim Harden suggested in a statement issued after the reward was announced that "if they are serious about finding the perpetrators, they will offer a $25K reward for each of the 150 pro-life organizations that have been attacked — $3.75 million dollars."

Earlier this month, Attorney General Merrick Garland was questioned during a U.S. Senate hearing about the department's inability to hold those responsible for violence and vandalism at pro-life pregnancy clinics accountable. 

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, stressed that from 2022 to early 2023, the Justice Department charged 34 pro-life activists for "blocking access to or vandalizing abortion clinics," while two individuals have been charged for vandalizing pro-life churches and pregnancy care centers.

Garland stated that the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act "applies equally to efforts to damage, blockade clinics, whether they are a pregnancy resource center or they are an abortion center."

"You are quite right, 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," Garland said. "Seeing the person who did it is quite easy."

"Those who are attacking the pregnancy resource centers, which is a horrid thing to do, are doing this at night, in the dark," he added.

Garland stated, "the Justice Department and the FBI have made outreach to Catholic and other organizations to ask for their help in identifying the people who are doing this."

In January, a federal grand jury indicted two activists under the FACE Act — Caleb Freestone, 27, and Amber Smith-Stewart, 23 — for vandalizing pro-life pregnancy centers in Florida. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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