EXCLUSIVE — The Justice Department and FBI are facing a lawsuit from a Catholic lobbying group for allegedly failing to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about a memo that originated from an FBI field office that labeled Catholics as “violent extremists.”
CatholicVote, along with Judicial Watch, filed a lawsuit on Thursday that says the groups exhausted all their options to remedy their FOIA requests with the agencies, and that after initially corresponding with the groups, the DOJ and FBI had stopped communication with the groups since April 6.
The suit follows the leak of an internal memo that was produced by the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia, field office on Jan. 23, 2023. The memo identified ‘radical-traditionalist Catholic[s]’ as potential “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.”
According to the complaint, the groups were requesting text and email communications between DOJ and FBI officials that included terms like “Catholics, “Latin Mass,” “Radical-Traditionalist Catholics,” “Pope Francis” and “Rosary,” among others.
Initial FOIA requests were made on March 8. According to the complaint, on March 14 the FBI advised the groups that “unusual circumstances” prevented the agency from complying with the 20-day deadline to respond to a FOIA request.
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Even though FOIA norms require agencies to respond within 20 business days, with an additional 10 for “unusual circumstances,” more than a month has passed and, to date, the FBI and DOJ have failed to produce the requested records or even communicate whether they plan to comply with the request, the groups say.
“Our weaponized and corrupt government agencies have demonstrated a pattern of contempt for justice and the rule of law by prioritizing partisan ideology and agendas over the protection of the American people – in particular those with whom they disagree politically,” CatholicVote President Brian Burch said in a statement.
“We are demanding transparency from our government and are determined to uncover just how high up the anti-Catholic bigotry goes.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in recent congressional testimony about the leaked memo that the agency “took steps immediately to withdraw it and remove it from FBI systems.”
“It does not reflect FBI standards,” Wray added. “We do not conduct investigations based on religious affiliation or practices, full stop. We have also now ordered our inspection division to take a look at how this happened and try to figure out how we can make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
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Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he thought the memo was “appalling.”
But a subpoena issued by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, last month confirmed that the FBI attempted to cultivate “sources” to combat domestic terrorism and use local religious organizations as “new avenues for tripwire and source development.”
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Subpoenaed documents also revealed that the FBI relied on “at least one undercover agent to produce its analysis, and that the FBI proposed that its agents engage in outreach to Catholic parishes to develop sources among the clergy and church leadership to inform on Americans practicing their faith,” according to Jordan.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., subsequently sent a letter to Garland that accused him of providing false testimony to the Senate last month when he said his department is not developing sources inside Catholic churches and other houses of worship, and Hawley demanded to know how many “undercover informants or other agents” are aiding the department from these religious sites.
“Let’s be clear: your Department has decided to turn Catholic congregations into front organizations for the FBI, and when asked about it, you’ve decided to fudge the truth before Congress,” Hawley wrote in a letter to Garland on April 11.
“This is an unconscionable assault on American Catholics’ First Amendment rights and an abdication of your duty to enforce the law without fear or favor,” he said.
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Burch of CatholicVote told Fox News Digital his concern about the memo expands beyond the Catholic Church.
“This is again a precedent,” Burch told Fox News Digital in an interview.
“Where unless citizens push back against our government, we’re allowing this escalation of government power to cross boundaries that are sacrosanct, including the privacy of a church, where millions of Americans go every Sunday to worship and to seek fellowship with co-believers.”
“And the prospect of our own federal government spying or sending our undercover agents into these places of worship is a much bigger concern, is a much bigger issue than just for Catholics,” he said.
The FBI and DOJ did not immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment on the lawsuit.
Fox News Digital’s Elizabeht Elkind and Thomas Catenacci contributed to this report.