Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times. —Niccolo Machiavelli
At a gathering of Catholics in his archdiocese last year, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, uttered a strategic point that would have done Machiavelli proud. The bishops, he said, are perhaps not the church’s best messengers.
“In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over,” he told his flock, according to the New York Times, at a diocesan convocation on public policy. Reporting for the Times, Tim Stelloh and Andy Newman wrote of an example he gave the crowd, an apparent reference to the hiring of Helen Alvaré by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990:
[Dolan] told a story about bishops hiring an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to speak against abortion and said it was “the best thing we ever did…”
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Dolan, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), decided this week to operationalize his assessment by hiring Kim Daniels, a former operative for Sarah Palin’s political action committee, as his spokesperson—a new position with a much broader mission than that covered by Alvaré in the 1990s.
An attorney and youthful mother of six who echoes the bishops’ disdain for contraception and abortion, Daniels is a smart cookie with an appealing personality. In other words, an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman.
When the USCCB announced Daniels’s appointment, the thing that grabbed reporters’ attention was her work in 2010 as an operative for Sarah Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC—a résumé entry conveniently omitted from the bishops’ announcement about their new hire. If there was any doubt remaining of the bishops’ total alignment with the most right-wing part of the Republican Party, that data point should lay it to rest. But the rest of Daniels’ career is far more interesting—and troubling.
The Reframing of Religious Freedom
Over the course of the last several decades, as reasonable people, including most lay Catholics, increasingly rejected the church’s medieval worldview on women’s rights, human sexuality, and LGBTQ rights, the political power of U.S. bishops has been on the wane. During the debate over health-care reform, President Barack Obama went around the prelates in order to confer some Catholic buy-in on the deal, ultimately winning the approval of a number of highly placed nuns, who signed a letter to that effect, as well as the head of the Catholic Health Association, who also happens to be a Catholic sister.
The bishops were incensed. At that moment, their lack of sway over their own people was revealed for all to see. They needed a new angle, one that could also speak to the hearts of those ordinary Americans who, in the wake of the church’s massive child-sex-abuse scandal, now judged them to be mere mortals, and deeply flawed mortals at that. Enter the Red, White, and Blue.
The success of the Tea Party movement, with its bigoted and misogynist underpinnings dressed in the regalia of patriotism, was apparently not lost on the bishops. On the heels of their humiliating defeat with the Affordable Care Act, the bishops found a new, patriotic-sounding cause to wrap around their attempts to codify prejudice and discrimination as secular law: religious freedom, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Summon the fife and drum!
Trouble is, the bishops’ notion of religious freedom differs a bit from that of the founders, who sought to avoid the establishment of a state religion by promising Americans freedom of worship. What the bishops seek, on the other hand, is the right to impose their religious views on those who do not subscribe to their theology. Any impediment to their totalitarian view is now framed as a breach of their religious freedom. And Kim Daniels has been deeply involved in the advancement of this strategy.
Media-Friendly and Studio Ready Church Ladies
After her brief tenure with SarahPAC, Daniels, together with National Review Online columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez, created a media platform for the two women called Catholic Voices USA. The aim of the organization is to fulfill some of what Dolan had called for: the marshalling of informed Catholic laypeople who can plead the church’s case to the public. From the CVUSA mission statement:
We’re media-friendly and studio-ready, and offer an authoritative (but not official) group of articulate speakers who make the Catholic case in interviews and debates — clearly, reasonably, and compellingly.
The bishops threw a fit upon learning that Catholic-affiliated institutions whose main function is not religious (for example, hospitals) would not be exempted, under the Affordable Care Act, from the mandatory provision of prescription contraception by employer-provided health-care plans. And Daniels stepped up to the plate, joining Helen Alvaré, now a law professor at George Mason University after leaving her post as the director of planning and information for the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-life Secretary, in launching a petition, which they say now has 37,000 signatures, claiming the administration doesn’t speak for women.
Daniels, who worked on contract for the bishops prior to her appointment by the USCCB, also participated in the Tea Partyish “Fortnight for Freedom” the bishops launched last summer in protest of the contraception mandate. (Read Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner’s take here.)
But Daniels’ brief tenure with SarahPAC wasn’t her only eyebrow-raising employment experience that the bishops left out of their announcement. Under her signature on the anti-contraception-mandate petition, Daniels identifies herself as “Former Counsel, Thomas More Law Center”; she left that organization in 2009, and signed the petition in 2012. That means something, because the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) is a virulently theocratic, anti-woman, anti-gay, and Islamophobic non-profit law firm to which Daniels devoted nine years of her career.
The writer of the USCCB announcement, however, glossed over that part of Daniels’ work history, simply describing her as “an attorney whose practice has focused on religious liberty matters.”
The Thomas More Law Center
Remember that case about teaching “intelligent design” (a fancy name for creationism) in Pennsylvania? That suit was fomented by the Thomas More Law Center; its officials literally shopped around intelligent design textbooks to public school districts, hoping to find one that would be willing to take up the challenge in exchange for TMLC’s legal defense when secularists launched a lawsuit. In Dover, Pennsylvania, the school board did—and lost big in a 2005 court decision. (That debacle led former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) to resign from the advisory board of the Thomas More Law Center.)
The center also launched a 2002 lawsuit against a Planned Parenthood chapter for failing to inform abortion patients of the (non-existent) link between abortion and breast cancer. It lost that one, too, and the plaintiffs were made to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal fees.
Islamophobia and “Religious Liberty”
Lately, the Thomas More Law Center is making a name for itself in the burgeoning field of Islamophobia, having added Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and former Rep. Allen West (R-FL) to its advisory board, where they join Alan Keyes, the former UN ambassador and anti-choice zealot who often accompanies Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry in his antics.
Last year, TMLC President Richard Thompson claimed that the education of the U.S. military has been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. From an October report by Brian Tashman at Right Wing Watch:
Thompson said that Sharia law is becoming part of U.S. law and that the government is unable to fight it because Americans are too sensitive to criticize Islam, and so we are now “being destroyed from within.”
On May 2, the TMLC website featured on its home page a link to a story about Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley, one of its clients, in Soldier of Fortune magazine, a publication for mercenaries. Dooley is pursuing an administrative appeal in the Army over his rejection for a command post after he was fired as an instructor at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, for teaching a course that advocated “total war” against Islam. Dooley was canned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff after Spencer Ackerman, a reporter for Wired’s Danger Room blog, wrote:
The course instructed senior officers at the lieutenant colonel, commander, colonel and Navy captain level that “there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam,’” and that wartime protections against civilians of Islamic countries were “no longer relevant.”
Dooley’s course materials, obtained by Ackerman, envisioned a strategy for “reducing Islam to cult status” by destroying the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
It should be said that I found no evidence that Daniels worked for the Islam-bashing clients of the Thomas More Law Center—but neither has she tried to distance herself from the center.
The Catholic News Service described Daniels, while on the TMLC staff, as having “specialized in conscience-rights issues, testifying in opposing legislation that would place regulations on pro-life pregnancy crisis centers and bills that would force pharmacists to dispense morning-after pills.”
Before the Maryland State Senate in 2008, Daniels testified against a legislative proposal that would have mandated crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that don’t offer information on abortion or contraception to tell patients that the centers are exempt from providing factually accurate information. Daniels’ objection was that the legislation would violate the First Amendment by requiring CPCs to make a “false statement”—because they’re bound by their internal guidelines to always tell the truth (meaning, of course, the truth according to their biblical or magesterial interpretation). To the joy of anti-choice groups, the bill ultimately failed.
Since Daniels’s departure, the Thomas More Law Center has also been a lead player in a cottage industry of legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, especially its contraception mandate. In its most recent contraception mandate case—its fourth, according to the website—TMLC is representing Eden Foods, the health-food company that wants to claim a religious freedom exemption from including contraception in the health insurance it provides its employees.
In choosing Daniels as his hand-picked spokesperson, Cardinal Dolan has laid bare just how radically the U.S. Catholic Church has turned to the right in the Obama years.