Bill Donohue: The Bully’s TV Pulpit

Scott Swenson

A new report details a pattern of media manipulation by Bill Donahue and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights -- making them neither religious, nor civil.

In an election year in which three presidential candidates force voters to deal with real bigotry, in the forms of misogyny, racism and ageism, Americans are looking within their hearts, facing generational fears, seeking a less divisive way to discuss issues on which we disagree. More often than not, mainstream media is no help — over-simplifying issues, over-emphasizing demographics, or worse, stoking the flames of hate with talking heads that shed no light but bring plenty of heat, contributing to division not healing. Old ways die hard.

Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is one such all heat, no light cable television guest. Donohue claims to protect Catholics from anti-Catholic bigotry. In reality, he manufactures controversies, bullies political opponents, and insults people with a world view different from his. This "defender of religious and civil rights" routinely defames Jews, Muslims, gays, and women — all in the name of Jesus, and believing that he is protecting American values.

In a 43-page report released Monday, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights: Neither Religious, Nor Civil, Catholics for Choice documents a pattern of media and political manipulation by Donohue, his organization, and his supporters. His base of support comes from the most politicized leaders of the Catholic hierarchy, including Cardinal Egan, and a board that reads like a Who’s Who of partisan Republican politics (L. Brent Bozell III, Alan Keyes, Kate O’Beirne, Linda Chavez, Kenneth Whitehead, Lawrence Kudlow, Thomas Monaghan, William Simon, Jr.). Far from protecting Catholics from bigotry, Donohue plays the victim card to advance a narrow, socially conservative, hierarchical and patriarchal political view.

"Bill Donohue is a punk and a bully," says Jon O’Brien, President of Catholics for Choice. "His style is more suited to being in the ring of the World Wrestling Federation than a television studio. Donohue is hiding a political and social agenda that has nothing to do with anti-defamation, and nothing to do with Catholicism."

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The report details the history of the Catholic League, its manipulative tactics, alleged successes, and exaggerated membership.

The pattern that emerges from the study demonstrates that Donohue:

  • Manufactures controversy
  • Attempts to intimidate enemies
  • Bullies the opposition
  • Complains "early and often"
  • Attacks popular culture
  • Attempts to silence the loyal opposition

With numerous and detailed examples reaching back more than a decade, the report demonstrates Donohue’s success at creating controversy around films like Priest and television shows like Nothing Sacred, which simply wrestled with common social issues within Catholic settings, threatening advertisers by taking out full-page ads promising boycotts. His most recent media manipulation was over the very serious threat to Christianity posed by a Chocolate Jesus.

But Donohue has different standards for how hard he fights when it comes to his friends. Perhaps the only real anti-Catholic bigotry in recent memory, that Donohue could have genuinely used his bombast against, is the Rev. John Haggee, a supporter of Sen. John McCain. From the report:

Even when 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain was endorsed by Rev. John Hagee—a notorious anti-Catholic bigot—Donohue’s criticism was easily muted. Initially he condemned McCain’s embrace of Hagee, noting that the pastor’s descriptions of the Catholic church included phrases like “the Great Whore” an “apostate church,” the “anti-Christ” and a “false cult system.” But unlike his merciless attacks on Kerry and other Democratic candidates, Donohue simply called for McCain to “retract his embrace of Hagee.” After several days, McCain issued a pseudo-apology: “I repudiate any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee’s, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics.” Donohue’s reaction?: “As far as the Catholic League is concerned, this case is closed.” This response is in marked contrast to his treatment of Democratic candidates.


No full page ads. No demands the media expose Rev. Hagee in weeks of looping cable coverage as they did Rev. Jeremiah Wright. No, when it came to someone calling Catholicism a "whore-religion," Bill Donohue was about as silent as it is possible for him to be. "There is no doubt that, if you look at the list of targets Donohue has
chosen over the years, they play partisan favorites in many ways,"
O’Brien says. "This is no where close to being a Catholic
anti-defamation league." As the report suggests, Catholic candidate John Kerry didn’t get off so easliy in 2004 — and all he did was express honest political views that differed from Donohue’s.

From the report:

As John M. Swomley, a noted researcher on the religious right said, the Catholic League “redefines religious and civil rights as opposites to those normally understood as constitutional rights.” In other words, an individual’s freedom of speech or expression is trumped by Donohue’s right not to be offended by speech that challenges his brittle worldview.

The report continues:

… Donohue’s rhetoric insists that: a) non-Catholics have no right to participate in this debate and any non-Catholics who do so are inherently anti-Catholic (this despite the widespread influence that the Catholic church has in society at large on non-Catholics through its provision of education and health care, and vigorous lobbying of public officials on issues of concern to the church, such as abortion); and b) Catholics who engage in such debate are by definition “bad” Catholics who are out to destroy the church and therefore have no legitimate role in the debate.

Catholics for Choice hopes that the report will serve as a "wake up call" to the media, says O’Brien. He acknowledges that changes in news consumption habits and economic factors challenge mainstream media. But, says O’Brien, "they can at least control for quality. Most people want to leave a program knowing more at the end than when you sat down to watch, and with Donohue you always know less. Conservative talk radio and Fox News pioneered this type of interview as entertainment and too many producers followed their lead."

Donohue recently took aim at new media, targeting Rewire’s own Amanda Marcotte, author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. Marcotte famously left the John Edwards for President campaign after Donohue criticized a blog post she’d written six months earlier on Pandagon, before being affiliated with the campaign.

"Bill Donohue conflated genuine critique of dogma in a political context with prejudice against believers, most of whom also disagree with that dogma," Marcotte said.

Marcotte learned of Donohue’s attack when AP reporter Nedra Picker asked her to comment on a Catholic League press release. "Fifteen minutes after she asked for my comment, the story was on the wire, indicating she never had any intention of getting my side," says Marcotte. "I’ve since learned she has a reputation for brainlessly publishing right wing press releases as though they were facts. Frankly, I was impressed by how easy the character assassination was for Donohue, and how complicit mainstream media was."

"I’m an astute defender of religious liberty. It was clear to me that Donohue was offended by a critique of Catholic teachings, but it is morally bankrupt to equate that with anti-Catholic bigotry. I don’t agree with everything in the Koran, but that doesn’t mean I’m bigoted toward Muslims," Marcotte says.

Where was Donohue’s outrage for the six months the post in question had been published? Why did he wait until Marcotte was affiliated with Sen. John Edwards campaign to raise the issue?

For Marcotte, and fellow blogger/Donohue target Melissa McEwan, Donohue’s publicity stunt turned even uglier after the national media frenzy. Threats of sexual violence and death filled their email boxes, including two threats so serious they were turned over to the FBI. One Donohue devotee went so far as to pound violently on McEwan’s front door for ten minutes.

These are the very real results of Bill Donohue’s tactics. Not only does he inspire others to make threats, he also carries with him an aura of violence. The report explains that former Catholics for Choice President Frances Kissling "admitted that after a few run-ins with Donohue she
didn’t want to appear with him because she felt threatened by him: ‘He
never physically threatened me, but I felt like I was in the presence
of an abuser,’ she said."

And Mark Silk, director of Trinity College’s
Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, told CFC, “He’s a thug. He reverts to bullying because he thinks that’s
what the job entails.”

Donohue seems to drop even the pretense of anti-defamation concerns when he speaks of other religions. The report quotes Donohue:

“Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it.” (Scarborough Country, Dec. 8, 2004)

“Now, in this country, we are civilized. We don’t appreciate it when somebody sticks it to you in the name of freedom of speech, sir. We condemn it. But over there, they take the uncivilized approach. And then they wonder why so many people don’t trust the Muslims when it comes to liberty, because they will abuse it.” (Scarborough Country, Feb. 9, 2006)

By no means does Bill Donohue, or the Catholic League, represent the views of most Catholics. "For most Catholics, this sort of extremist discourse has no relation to their life," O’Brien says. "Catholics are not jumping up and down because there is no need for anti-defamation as there once was. Catholics in good conscience ignore Donohue, just as in good conscience most use contraception, vote pro-choice, and get along with their neighbors of different faiths."

In the report, a priest says it best:

“As a Christian, a Catholic priest, I stand in opposition to any and all hateful speech used by anyone, especially when they do so in the name of Jesus. I do not believe that one can claim to be a disciple of Jesus and at the same time deride, mock, insult, or threaten violence against another person… One cannot proclaim the love of Jesus while cursing one’s neighbor…To continually use hateful, crude, violent language is indicative of what dwells within one’s heart. Mr. Donohue speaks only for himself and not the Catholic church.” —Father Jeff Gatlain (John Amato, “A Catholic priest stands tall against Bill Donohue,” Crooks and, April 5, 2007).


As Americans consider the issues that matter most in this presidential campaign, and look within their hearts to confront and resolve bias they may find toward women, people of color, senior citizens, or people of differing beliefs, sexual orientations, economic or educational status, it is critical to discern real bigotry from fake. We must use this election to see through the political and media manipulation, including the sort Bill Donohue has built his career on, and that social conservatives have used to hijack our democracy.

Mainstream media must look beyond the easy, entertaining aspects of bombastic television guests like Donohue, when in fact real bigotry does exist, and help shape a national dialog that brings us together as Americans. Media should make the effort toward "quality control", as O’Brien suggested, and include genuine intellectual tension between differing philosophies which is important in our democracy.

"Genuinely smart people like George Weigle and Kate O’Beirne who are capable of vigorous intellectual debate, but with whom I disagree," O’Brien says, "have their credibility called into question by lending it to such an extremist organization that uses such vile tactics. People don’t want screaming accusations and distortions." With Bill Donohue and the Catholic League, that’s all you get.

Analysis Law and Policy

Justice Kennedy’s Silence Speaks Volumes About His Apparent Feelings on Women’s Autonomy

Imani Gandy

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.

Last week’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was remarkable not just for what it did say—that two provisions in Texas’s omnibus anti-abortion law were unconstitutional—but for what it didn’t say, and who didn’t say it.

In the lead-up to the decision, many court watchers were deeply concerned that Justice Anthony Kennedy would side with the conservative wing of the court, and that his word about targeted restrictions of abortion providers would signal the death knell of reproductive rights. Although Kennedy came down on the winning side, his notable silence on the “dignity” of those affected by the law still speaks volumes about his apparent feelings on women’s autonomy. That’s because Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity, and where along the fault line of that human dignity various rights fall, has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.

His opinion on marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, along with his prior opinions striking down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas and the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, assured us that he recognizes the fundamental human rights and dignity of LGBTQ persons.

On the other hand, as my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo noted, his concern in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action about the dignity of the state, specifically the ballot initiative process, assured us that he is willing to sweep aside the dignity of those affected by Michigan’s affirmative action ban in favor of the “‘dignity’ of a ballot process steeped in racism.”

Meanwhile, in his majority opinion in June’s Fisher v. University of Texas, Kennedy upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ affirmative action program, noting that it remained a challenge to this country’s education system “to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

It is apparent that where Kennedy is concerned, dignity is the alpha and the omega. But when it came to one of the most important reproductive rights cases in decades, he was silent.

This is not entirely surprising: For Kennedy, the dignity granted to pregnant women, as evidenced by his opinions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart, has been steeped in gender-normative claptrap about abortion being a unique choice that has grave consequences for women, abortion providers’ souls, and the dignity of the fetus. And in Whole Woman’s Health, when Kennedy was given another chance to demonstrate to us that he does recognize the dignity of women as women, he froze.

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He didn’t write the majority opinion. He didn’t write a concurring opinion. He permitted Justice Stephen Breyer to base the most important articulation of abortion rights in decades on data. There was not so much as a callback to Kennedy’s flowery articulation of dignity in Casey, where he wrote that “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education” are matters “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” (While Casey was a plurality opinion, various Court historians have pointed out that Kennedy himself wrote the above-quoted language.)

Of course, that dignity outlined in Casey is grounded in gender paternalism: Abortion, Kennedy continued, “is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedures for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted.” Later, in Gonzales, Kennedy said that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban “expresses respect for the dignity of human life,” with nothing about the dignity of the women affected by the ban.

And this time around, Kennedy’s silence in Whole Woman’s Health may have had to do with the facts of the case: Texas claimed that the provisions advanced public health and safety, and Whole Woman’s Health’s attorneys set about proving that claim to be false. Whole Woman’s Health was the sort of data-driven decision that did not strictly need excessive language about personal dignity and autonomy. As Breyer wrote, it was a simple matter of Texas advancing a reason for passing the restrictions without offering any proof: “We have found nothing in Texas’ record evidence that shows that, compared to prior law, the new law advanced Texas’ legitimate interest in protecting women’s health.”

In Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s two-page concurrence, she succinctly put it, “Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements.”

“Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that ‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,’ cannot survive judicial inspection,” she continued, hammering the point home.

So by silently signing on to the majority opinion, Kennedy may simply have been expressing that he wasn’t going to fall for the State of Texas’ efforts to undermine Casey’s undue burden standard through a mixture of half-truths about advancing public health and weak evidence supporting that claim.

Still, Kennedy had a perfect opportunity to complete the circle on his dignity jurisprudence and take it to its logical conclusion: that women, like everyone else, are individuals worthy of their own autonomy and rights. But he didn’t—whether due to his Catholic faith, a deep aversion to abortion in general, or because, as David S. Cohen aptly put it, “[i]n Justice Kennedy’s gendered world, a woman needs … state protection because a true mother—an ideal mother—would not kill her child.”

As I wrote last year in the wake of Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell, “according to [Kennedy’s] perverse simulacrum of dignity, abortion rights usurp the dignity of motherhood (which is the only dignity that matters when it comes to women) insofar as it prevents women from fulfilling their rightful roles as mothers and caregivers. Women have an innate need to nurture, so the argument goes, and abortion undermines that right.”

This version of dignity fits neatly into Kennedy’s “gendered world.” But falls short when compared to jurists internationally,  who have pointed out that dignity plays a central role in reproductive rights jurisprudence.

In Casey itself, for example, retired Justice John Paul Stevens—who, perhaps not coincidentally, attended the announcement of the Whole Woman’s Health decision at the Supreme Court—wrote that whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a “matter of conscience,” and that “[t]he authority to make such traumatic and yet empowering decisions is an element of basic human dignity.”

And in a 1988 landmark decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Bertha Wilson indicated in her concurring opinion that “respect for human dignity” was key to the discussion of access to abortion because “the right to make fundamental personal decision without interference from the state” was central to human dignity and any reading of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982, which is essentially Canada’s Bill of Rights.

The case was R. v. Morgentaler, in which the Supreme Court of Canada found that a provision in the criminal code that required abortions to be performed only at an accredited hospital with the proper certification of approval from the hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee violated the Canadian Constitution. (Therapeutic abortion committees were almost always comprised of men who would decide whether an abortion fit within the exception to the criminal offense of performing an abortion.)

In other countries, too, “human dignity” has been a key component in discussion about abortion rights. The German Federal Constitutional Court explicitly recognized that access to abortion was required by “the human dignity of the pregnant woman, her… right to life and physical integrity, and her right of personality.” The Supreme Court of Brazil relied on the notion of human dignity to explain that requiring a person to carry an anencephalic fetus to term caused “violence to human dignity.” The Colombian Constitutional Court relied upon concerns about human dignity to strike down abortion prohibition in instances where the pregnancy is the result of rape, involves a nonviable fetus, or a threat to the woman’s life or health.

Certainly, abortion rights are still severely restricted in some of the above-mentioned countries, and elsewhere throughout the world. Nevertheless, there is strong national and international precedent for locating abortion rights in the square of human dignity.

And where else would they be located? If dignity is all about permitting people to make decisions of fundamental personal importance, and it turns out, as it did with Texas, that politicians have thrown “women’s health and safety” smoke pellets to obscure the true purpose of laws like HB 2—to ban abortion entirely—where’s the dignity in that?

Perhaps I’m being too grumpy. Perhaps I should just take the win—and it is an important win that will shape abortion rights for a generation—and shut my trap. But I want more from Kennedy. I want him to demonstrate that he’s not a hopelessly patriarchal figure who has icky feelings when it comes to abortion. I want him to recognize that some women have abortions and it’s not the worst decision they’ve ever made or the worst thing that ever happened to him. I want him to recognize that women are people who deserve dignity irrespective of their choices regarding whether and when to become a mother. And, ultimately, I want him to write about a woman’s right to choose using the same flowery language that he uses to discuss LGBTQ rights and the dignity of LGBTQ people.  He could have done so here.

Forcing the closure of clinics based on empty promises of advancing public health is an affront to the basic dignity of women. Not only do such lies—and they are lies, as evidenced by the myriad anti-choice Texan politicians who have come right out and said that passing HB 2 was about closing clinics and making abortion inaccessible—operate to deprive women of the dignity to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term, they also presume that the American public is too stupid to truly grasp what’s going on.

And that is quintessentially undignified.

Analysis Law and Policy

The Right’s Ongoing Battle Against the Birth Control Benefit

Imani Gandy & Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in the second direct challenge to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act. It's a fight that's been years in the making.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in Zubik v. Burwell regarding the requirement in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for certain employer-sponsored health insurance plans to cover contraception as preventive care with no additional co-pay—also known as the birth control benefit.

Before the Court are seven cases that have been consolidated for one hearing: (1) Zubik v. Burwell; (2) Priests for Life v. Department of Health and Human Services; (3) Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Burwell; (4) East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell; (5) Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell; (6) Geneva College v. Burwell; and (7) The Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell

These challengers are various Catholic and evangelical schools, charities, and affiliated associations such as nursing homes and hospitals. They all oppose contraception on religious grounds, and they all want the Supreme Court to absolve them of the birth control benefit. In effect, they want the same deal that churches and other houses of worship got: a full exemption from compliance with the law.

But giving those organizations that exemption would result in thousands of people being blocked, because of their employers’ objections, to the full range of benefits guaranteed to them under the ACA. So instead, the Obama administration crafted an accommodation process that allows for religious nonprofits to self-certify, either to their insurer or the Department of Health and Human Services directly, that they oppose contraception on religious grounds. From there, their obligations end with regard to coordinating or otherwise being involved in contraception coverage.

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Still, religious nonprofits believe that the self-certification process itself—filling out paperwork and notifying the government of their eligibility for the accommodation—acts as a “trigger” for coverage.

Below is a timeline that explains how we got from the passage of one of the most important pieces of legislation of Obama’s presidency to a deluge of suits challenging an innocuous provision of the law that has become a touchstone for the raging culture war being played out on women’s bodies.


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