Why Is Justice Department Investigating Southern Baptist Convention?

The nation’s largest conservative, Protestant denomination revealed on Friday it is under investigation by the Biden administration over claims of sexual abuse and harassment.

The federal probe by a persistent church critic raised eyebrows, coming amidst a flurry of actions opponents say are intended to punish the president’s political enemies, including an unprecedented FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s home earlier in the week and the passage of a bill that critics contend will allow rogue IRS agents to target conservative Christian organizations.

The Southern Baptist Convention, which has 13.7 million members in more than 47,000 churches, announced the Justice Department inquiry just months after releasing an independent report on sexual abuse claims. “The SBC Executive Committee recently became aware that the Department of Justice has initiated an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, and that the investigation will include multiple SBC entities,” the executive committee disclosed in a statement released Friday. “Individually and collectively, each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation.” The 14 signatories said they “continue to grieve and lament past mistakes,” “recognize our reform efforts are not finished,” and asked for prayer. 

The SBC outsourced a report examining how the executive committee handled sexual abuse reports between 2000 and 2021. Guidepost Solutions, a report from an outside firm, was published in a 288-page report in May that one member of the SBC’s executive committee compiled a list of 703 people “suspected of abuse” but never released it publicly. The report records “703 abusers” but notes curiously that only 409 are “believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time.”

Days after the report’s release, Guidepost Solutions tweeted its support for Pride Month and the LGBT movement. 

The SBC subsequently printed a list of 205 pages of pastors, church workers, and volunteers “credibly accused” of abuse—a list, it notes, that includes cases that “resulted in an acquittal.” The report redacted the names and some details of those found innocent, or not accused of sexual impropriety—resulting in some entries with every detail blacked out.

Guidepost and the executive team both made it clear that the Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary association of independent churches and does not ordain local pastors. The report states, due to the Southern Baptists’ congregationalist method of government, “the SBC could not, or should not, take certain actions to address sexual abuse within SBC local churches.” Yet the report induced 44,000 people to sign an online petition, demanding a government investigation.

Observers are puzzled by the timing of the DOJ investigation and the method used to investigate it.

A former Justice Department official—who asked for his name to be withheld—told The Washington Stand that he finds the DOJ’s wide-ranging investigation into multiple Southern Baptist Convention entities “novel” and “dubious.” He struggled to identify a federal statute that could be used to target a religious entity for such a capacious investigation. The investigation seems more unusual since sexual abuse investigations are usually handled by Local prosecutors. “The key question is: What civil or criminal statute is the DOJ using as the predicate for this investigation?” the official noted.

In the past, the Biden administration has repeatedly flouted constitutional authorization. defying the Supreme Court by attempting to continue its eviction moratorium last fall. The Supreme Court stopped the executive action, saying the CDC had exceeded its legal authority. OSHA tried to impose a vaccine mandate upon private businesses employing at least 100 people last November; the Supreme Court also attempted it. ruled in January that the administration had no legal grounds to impose such a vaccination mandate.

The SBC investigation has a precedent. 2018 investigation into Roman Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania, which was carried out by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. But the former DOJ official underscored that investigation appears to be narrower in scope than the Biden DOJ’s investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The DOJ investigation fizzled in 2019. It ended with one arrest—an 82-year-old defrocked priest,” Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights told The Washington Stand in an exclusive interview. “One reason the DOJ probe went nowhere is because [Pennsylvania]Attorney General Josh Shapiro was just finishing a witch hunt grand jury investigation. This investigation did nothing to punish any wrongdoers and instead smeared many priests. I sued on behalf of 11 priests who had their reputations damaged and won.”

Unless the Justice Department is time-barred from getting alleged offenders, Donohue told The Washington Stand, “there is no statute of limitations on harassing and intimidating SBC. They are very good at this. Their actions can be costly in terms of legal fees and the reputation/credibility of the SBC leadership.”

The former DOJ official told The Washington Stand that, while he understands many people instinctively support any investigation into the horrors of sexual abuse, it is dangerous to support any investigation uncritically—especially when it involves a Justice Department that has “enormous hostility toward a religious organization like the Southern Baptist Convention.”

“I worry about this kind of thing from this DOJ,” the official told The Washington Stand. “They do not take a fair-minded approach to the law. If it were, [DOJ leadership], they would mandate Southern Baptist churches perform same-sex marriages or cease to exist.”

The Obama-Biden administration’s Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, admitted during the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case that the tax-exempt status of religious nonprofits is “certainly going to be an issue” when justices imposed same-sex marriage on all 50 states. It is more difficult to strip churches of their tax-exempt status, but the federal government may be looking for other ways to target Christians who adhere to biblical morality.

The SBC teaches that “marriage is a sacred covenant between one man, one woman, and a holy God, intended for life” and has encouraged states to adopt constitutional marriage protection amendments before Obergefell removed the issue from the voters’ hands. Extreme transgender ideology was also condemned by The SBC. voting to “affirm God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” It is not known whether the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church’s embrace of natural marriage and gender identity affected either federal investigation.

Original publication by The Washington Stand.

The Daily Signal offers a variety perspectives. Nothing here should be taken to mean that The Heritage Foundation views are represented.

Do you have a comment about this article? To sound off, please email letters@DailySignal.com and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Include the URL or headline of your article, along with your name and the address of your town and/or state.