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Conservative groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) this week, asking a federal court to compel the agency to release records about how it has handled attacks on churches and pro-life organizations.   

Advancing American Freedom and the Heritage Foundation filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, accusing the DOJ of failing to provide them with documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The organizations say they want to investigate the “possible failure” by the DOJ  “to provide pro-life organizations victimized by crime with equal justice under law,” the lawsuit states. In the complaint it says:

In the past several years, this country has seen a dramatic increase in violence against religious and pro-life organizations. But while the Department of Justice has aggressively enforced federal criminal laws to protect ‘pro-choice’ and other organizations espousing the Administration’s favored political or policy views, all publicly available evidence indicates that the Department’s response to this increased violence against religious and pro-life organizations has been anemic at best. 

The organizations requested internal DOJ communications about crimes or investigations of crimes against pro-life organizations, communications between the DOJ and the Domestic Policy Council or the Executive Office of the President on those investigations, and any other records related to communications between the DOJ and any other entities on the subject of pregnancy resource centers, according to the lawsuit.

The groups — joined by Americans United for Life, CatholicVote, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, Concerned Women for America, The Ethics and Public Policy Center, FaithWins, the Family Research Council, For America, Human Coalition, Keystone Policy, Students for Life Action, and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America — submitted their FOIA request on September 30, 2022. On February 26, 2023, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) responded to the request and closed it on the grounds that it did not “contain enough descriptive information to permit a search of our records.”

The plaintiffs are asking the federal court to compel the agency to fulfill the organizations’ FOIA request within 20 days of the court’s order, and to provide an explanation for any records that are withheld. The lawsuit also asks the court to block the DOJ from assessing fees or costs related to plaintiffs’ request.

According to the Catholic News Agency (CNA), the DOJ “has claimed it has lived up to its legal obligations in how it has handled the FOIA requests.”

“The DOJ has also stated that its Office of Information Policy informed the coalition that the searches could take longer than 30 days and provided contact information for a FOIA public liaison to assist with the request,” according to the report.

“The DOJ has further noted that the DOJ provided them with contact information for the Office of Government Information Services, which it has argued is consistent with the legal requirements for an agency if it cannot produce the documents within 30 days,” it goes on to say.

Mike Howell, the director of the Oversight Project and one of the people suing the DOJ, told CNA that ““[Attorney General] Merrick Garland and his top officials at DOJ clearly hold us in contempt.”

“They refuse to prosecute those who violently attack pro-life organizations simply for existing and who attempt to coerce and intimidate Supreme Court justices into ruling the way the mob desires,” Howell continued. “Meanwhile, they send SWAT teams to the homes of pro-life Americans to arrest and prosecute them on trumped-up, phony charges.”

The lawsuit comes as churches and pro-life organizations continue to face attacks from pro-abortion extremists in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in November 2022 that approximately 70 percent of abortion-related threats of violence in the United States since the Dobbs decision have been against pro-life groups, although he denied that the FBI and DOJ are unevenly enforcing the law.

But despite pro-life groups facing more attacks, the DOJ indicted at least 26 pro-life activists in 2022, while only two pro-abortion activists appear to have faced the same treatment. When confronted with those numbers at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, United States Attorney General Merrick Garland admitted that the DOJ has prosecuted more pro-life activists than pro-abortion extremists following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, and blamed the timing of alleged crimes for the discrepancy.

“I will say, you are quite right: there are many more prosecutions with respect to 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 told Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). He continued:

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. 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.

According to CatholicVote, at least 83 pregnancy centers and pro-life groups have been attacked since the Dobbs decision was leaked, as well as 141 Catholic churches.

The case is Advancing American Freedom v. U.S. Department of Justice, No. 23-cv-743 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  

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