Will pro-choice protesters attack Catholic churches? The right seems to think so

Little-known pro-choice group defends its plan to "interrupt Mass" while right-wing media charges "terrorism"

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published May 8, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

A Pro-choice activist dressed in a Handmaid costume as they demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.  (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
A Pro-choice activist dressed in a Handmaid costume as they demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

After the Supreme Court draft opinion leak this past week that suggested the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade, conservatives responded with a variety of attempts to change the narrative. They insisted that the real issue was about who had leaked the document, claimed that the decision wouldn't really change anything, and derided progressives' worries about which precedent would fall next as hysterical. But on Thursday, the right was able to shift into a more comfortable gear, by claiming that they're actually the ones under attack.

The vehicle for this shift came with the news that a relatively unknown pro-choice group, Ruth Sent Us, was not merely  planning "walk-by" protests at the homes of six conservative Supreme Court justices, but also confrontational protests at Roman Catholic and other churches around the country on Sunday. The morning after the leaked opinion was published, the group tweeted, "Whether you're a 'Catholic for Choice,' ex-Catholic, of other or no faith, recognize that six extremist Catholics set out to overturn Roe. Stand at or in a local Catholic Church Sun May 8." Accompanying the post was a video of several women in "Handmaid's Tale"-style red cloaks and white bonnets, chanting pro-choice slogans in the aisle of a San Francisco church this February. 

In additional posts on Twitter and TikTok, the group shared footage of other church protests and explained, "We protest at churches, to make sure people understand why Roe is falling — extremist Christians plotted it, and all extremist church-goers are complicit. #MothersDayStrike #InterruptMass." 

RELATED: Adoption means abortion just isn't necessary, SCOTUS claims: That's even worse than it sounds

On Friday, a representative from Ruth Sent Us spoke with Salon on condition of anonymity, saying they had received a death threat the day before. This person described Ruth Sent Us not as a unified organization but a loose coalition of grassroots activists networked across the country, focused on the conviction that the Supreme Court has been corrupted as an institution. While many of their activists participated in "red cloak" protests throughout the Trump years, they adopted their current name after the 2020 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when they launched a new series of protests in hopes of preventing the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. 

At its height, the representative said, some 7,000 people organized under its banner, but those numbers dropped sharply in response to intra-feminist debates over the use of "Handmaid's Tale" imagery. (In particular, the debate focused on whether using symbols from Margaret Atwood's novel minimized the fact that millions of women have already endured dystopian regimes of forced birth like that depicted in the fictional Republic of Gilead, such as Black women under chattel slavery.) The representative said they couldn't estimate how many activists are currently involved in the coalition, nor how many actions are likely to happen this weekend. 

"The extremist religious justices rule us. There is no law Congress can make that will not be appealed by a red-state attorney general and gutted in a shadow ruling."

"Effective protest is the only hope we have of changing the system we're in right now," this individual said. Noting that five of the court's conservative justices were appointed by presidents who had lost the popular vote — two by George W. Bush and three by Donald Trump — they said, "We have a completely unaccountable Supreme Court. The six extremist religious justices rule us, because there is no law that Congress can make that will not immediately be appealed by a red-state attorney general and gutted in a shadow ruling." In such a situation, they argued, "The church needs to be held accountable for what they want. And what they want is for this corrupt, minority-elected Supreme Court to strip our human rights away."

"Domestic terror" and "anti-Catholic bigotry"

Starting on Thursday, the prospect of church protests became an increasingly hot topic, not among pro-choice advocates — since no mainstream movement groups appear to have endorsed the Ruth Sent Us actions — but rather on the right. The story sped from one conservative news outlet to another, including the National Review, Breitbart, Newsmax, the Washington Times, the New York Post, and, inevitably, numerous segments on Fox News and its affiliates. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

These stories were built around common themes. As one Trump appointee, Russ Vought, now president of the right-wing think tank Renewing America, told Fox News, "They're essentially trying to create violence in the streets so they can change the result of this important decision." 

Another Trump alumnus, Roger Severino, told the Daily Wire, "It's despicable anti-Catholic bigotry. … It doesn't get any more offensive than that, to try to interfere with somebody's First Amendment freedoms in the name of supporting abortion on demand." His wife, Carrie Severino, president of the right-wing legal activism group Judicial Crisis Network (and a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas), suggested the protesters might be paid affiliates of other conservative bugaboos like the Black Lives Matter movement. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also entered the fray, tweeting, "Deranged leftists are urging followers to disrupt church services across America this Sunday … I hope President Biden & democratic leaders will condemn this attempt to incite domestic terror."

Conservative Catholic organizations, unsurprisingly, gave the story heavy coverage. 

CatholicVote, a conservative organization that in 2020 shared staff with the Trump campaign, warned that "Anti-Catholic zealots are plotting to intimidate and harass Catholics across the country, along with justices and their families," and chastised Biden for failing "to condemn these domestic terrorist threats against his own people." Some conservative commentators linked the planned protests to incidents of vandalism at Catholic institutions over the last two years, resurrecting a prominent right-wing charge from the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. 

On Friday the Thomas More Society, a legal organization affiliated with the Christian right, sent an open letter to Ruth Sent Us, writing that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had been tracking "hate crimes committed against Catholic properties" since the start of the Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020, and that it considered their plans a hate crime as well. Even if the protests didn't legally constitute a hate crime, the letter continued, "they could still subject you to significant legal liability" since both the California and federal versions of the FACE Act prohibit the obstruction, intimidation or interference with people seeking to exercise their right to religious freedom at a house of worship.

"Please be advised that for the past 25 years, we have defended the pro-life cause and represented churches and people of faith across our nation, successfully vindicating the legal rights of pro-life and religious individuals at all court levels," the letter continued. "We will gladly represent any church or person of faith who seeks legal recourse against you or your protestors for your unlawful disruption of any religious worship services."

Invoking the FACE Act was an especially ironic theme surfacing in conservative discussions of these possible protests. The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act was passed in 1994 specifically to address an onslaught of violent attacks on abortion clinics, from clinic blockades and invasions to bombings and assassinations. While the bill was under consideration, Sen. Mitch McConnell later recalled, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the late conserative crusader from Utah, charged that the legislation was discriminatory for only focusing on the activities of anti-abortion advocates, and demanded that it include restrictions on protests against churches and synagogues as well.

The Christian Defense Coalition issued a similar press release on Friday, demanding that Biden and the DOJ enforce FACE Act protections for places of worship, declaring, "Every American should be able to freely worship according to the dictates of their beliefs and conscience free from intimidation or harassment. We need this Administration to speak out in support of religious freedom."

The right-wing Catholic outlet that recently hosted Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that Catholic men "need to step up, form a group and take [protesters] out."

But those institutional expressions of concern paled in comparison to the response from the more extreme corners of Catholicism. Church Militant, the right-wing Catholic news outlet that just last week heavily promoted its interview with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, in which the Georgia congresswoman said that Satan was controlling the Catholic Church, suggested that protesters should be met by loyal Catholic men, who "need to step up, form a group and take them out."

Similarly, Catholic-right podcaster Taylor Marshall, a member of Trump's 2020 Catholic advisory board who has repeatedly suggested that Pope Francis is illegitimate, dedicated an entire show to the prospect of church protests, asking his audience to consider, "What would you do if you were in holy Mass on Sunday and a bunch of pro-'A-word' people … came in? … Would you defend your church … Would we use violence?" Marshall went on to call for armed church porters and 10-man church "safety teams," and said lay Catholics should be ready to protect the sanctity of the Mass with their lives. 

On Twitter, the responses were eager and blunt: "Drag these trash loons out by their hair"; "you better keep your baby killing shock troopers away from my parish or they can join RBG in hell"; "Oh, please do this, it will be the last time you will have feeling in your legs." 

"Firing up the right wing"

It's hard to see all that without wondering whether church protests would give the right exactly what they want: a chance to cast the reversal of Roe in defensive, rather than offensive terms. As Dave Weigel wrote at the Washington Post this week, "nothing creates content for conservative media, and the Republicans who increasingly speak through it, than furious protesters…all of it sync[s] up with a message Republicans have made since 2017: that the left is sowing violence and chaos." 

That worry motivated several pro-choice groups to distance themselves from the proposal, while noting that Ruth Sent Us does not seem to be connected to the mainstream reproductive rights or reproductive justice movements. 

"I am personally in support of using many tactics to push back against abortion bans, but I don't think it's particularly strategic or wise to interrupt church services," said Lily Bolourian, the executive director of Pro-Choice Maryland, who said she hadn't been familiar with Ruth Sent Us until the past week and that she had concerns about other groups operating in its orbit. 

"I don't see what the end game is there," she went on. "It risks both alienating pro-abortion people of faith and firing up the right wing. In my view, it would be much better to use that energy to disrupt the lives of anti-abortion lawmakers and key events as opposed to disrupting faith services. It has a high potential of backfiring and serves no real movement-building purpose from where I stand."

In January, the progressive group Catholics for Choice sparked controversy after projecting pro-choice slogans, including "Pro-choice Catholics you are not alone," on the facade of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington during an anti-abortion vigil. While both conservative and some moderate Catholics decried the action as "desecration," CFC countered that they were attempting to "dramatically depict that there is no place inside the walls of the Catholic church — be it in a university or parish or charity — for dialogue about abortion." In the wake of the protest, they said, "thousands of people have reached out to us saying that they have felt seen as pro-choice Catholics for the first time in their lives." 

"Catholics for Choice is doing everything we can to make sure legal abortion remains in place. Protesting inside churches and giving the hierarchy a chance to appear as victims is not on our list."

But disrupting Mass, the group said, was counterproductive. "The majority of Catholics — 68% — support the legal abortion protections in Roe v. Wade. And one in four abortion patients is Catholic. Abortion is a part of the life of the church, and in any Mass it is likely that people who have had abortions are worshipping," said CFC president Jamie Manson. "Right now, Catholics for Choice is doing everything we can to make sure legal abortion remains in place. Protesting inside churches and giving the hierarchy a chance to appear as victims is not on our list."

In their conversation with Salon, the anonymous representative from Ruth Sent Us dismissed the threat of alienating believers, and said that some members of the network have privately discussed not just disrupting Mass, but burning the Eucharist — the sacrament that, according to Catholic doctrine, has become the literal body of Christ. To defile it in any way, for Catholic believers, is a grave offense. 

"The thing is, what's facing us is such a grim reality. It is almost a foregone conclusion," they said. "If we don't do anything, if after this ruling was leaked there is no uproar, no protests, what is the Supreme Court going to do? They were testing the waters. This was a trial balloon. If there is no reaction to the trial balloon, just launch it." 

Should that happen, the spokesperson continued, "In more than half the country, any woman who suffers a miscarriage is going to be at a severe risk of death, because in all those states that have trigger laws, what's going to happen when a pregnant woman starts bleeding? Her doctor will be afraid to treat her. We know this from every other country in the world where blanket abortion bans have happened." 

Given that, they said, "Why are we pretending there's something to be gained or preserved by not facing this clear-eyed and fighting the battle the way it needs to be fought?"

This isn't the first time such a question has been asked. In 1989, the grassroots activist organization ACT UP staged a massive protest, called "Stop the Church," at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Some 5,000 activists protested outside the cathedral, then the seat of Cardinal John O'Connor, a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights as well as safe-sex education. Roughly 100  protesters also went inside the church during Mass, staging a "die-in" during the priest's homily. Although that protest was originally meant to be silent, one protester began shouting, "You're killing us," while another crumbled the Eucharist on the floor.

As Michael O'Loughlin wrote in the Catholic magazine America 30 years after the protest, the plan had been controversial even within ACT UP at the time, as activists debated whether attracting media attention to their cause, as tens of thousands of people were dying of a disease that at that time had no effective treatments, outweighed the prospect of offending believers. 

Three decades later, that legendary protest has largely been vindicated by history, and even some Catholics view it with sympathy in the wake of all the subsequent scandals afflicting the church. But there's also the threat that church protests could come across more like those of the Westboro Baptist Church, the vitriolic anti-LGBTQ group that, according to its own logic, has protested churches alongside the funerals of hate crime victims and numerous other targets.

How abortion-rights advocates, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, respond to this moment of heightened tension — as the nation awaits the likely reversal of the 1973 Roe decision — is likely to be a question for history as well.

Read more on abortion rights and the likely end of Roe v. Wade:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

MORE FROM Kathryn Joyce

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Activists Catholics Pro-choice Reporting Roe V. Wade Roman Catholic Church Supreme Court