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A sign with pictures of Supreme Court Justices Thomas, Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch is held by demonstrators outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, on May 3, 2022, in Washington. (AP) A sign with pictures of Supreme Court Justices Thomas, Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch is held by demonstrators outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, on May 3, 2022, in Washington. (AP)

A sign with pictures of Supreme Court Justices Thomas, Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch is held by demonstrators outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, on May 3, 2022, in Washington. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher September 1, 2022

Catholic group’s ad attacking Biden overstates role of abortion rights as motive in church arsons

If Your Time is short

  • An ad from CatholicVote cited three 2022 arson attacks on churches, none of which caused major damage. But images in the ad showed churches leveled by arson in 1962.

  • In two of the 2022 arsons, which were believed to be committed by the same person, authorities found no evidence that abortion was the motive of the juvenile who was arrested. 

  • Police initially said graffiti sprayed on the church in another fire was related to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade two days earlier, but have made no arrests and have since said that although the graffiti is important evidence, they don’t know the motive of the crime.

A Catholic lobbying group’s ad attacking President Joe Biden, himself a Catholic, claims that churches are being targeted in arson attacks "because they protect unborn babies."

The anti-abortion TV spot begins with black-and-white images of unidentified structures on fire or in ruins. Interspersed are audio clips from the ad’s narrator, who refers to church burnings in the 1960s, and from John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president, pledging to arrest those responsible.

Then the narrator shifts to the present tense, claiming: 

"Now, churches are being burned again because they protect unborn babies and women in need."

Two headlines in the ad allude to two July church fires in Bethesda, Maryland. Another headline refers to a June fire at a Catholic church that isn’t identified by name in the ad.

The ad closes by suggesting that Biden has shown indifference to the church damage.

In the two July arsons, investigators found no indication that abortion was a motive of the teen who was arrested in connection with setting the fires. 

In the June arson, which occurred in Reston, Virginia, based on the date and other information in the headline, police initially connected the fire to the Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which federally protected access to abortion. But they have made no arrests and later said they don’t know the motivation for the crime.

Related suspected arsons at two Bethesda churches

CatholicVote, a nonprofit based in Carmel, Indiana, describes itself as a lobbying organization for "faith, family and freedom." 

The group said it launched the ad because of inaction by the Justice Department to attacks that damaged Catholic churches and anti-abortion organizations around the country after the draft was leaked on May 2 of the Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe.

We confirmed through news photographs that five of the eight black-and-white images shown in the ad are from suspected arsons in 1962 at Black churches in Georgia. The other images are similar, but we couldn’t determine their origin. Two of the churches pictured had been centers for voter registration efforts during that period of major racial strife.

The ad’s two July headlines were pulled from news stories from The Washington Post and a Washington, D.C., Fox TV affiliate about suspected arson at two churches and vandalism outside a third church. 

All three incidents occurred in Bethesda, several miles north of Washington, on July 9 and July 10.

One fire happened at a Catholic church, St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, and one at North Bethesda United Methodist Church. At the Catholic church, several pews were damaged, and at the Methodist church, the fellowship hall, kitchen and hallway were damaged, the Post reported. The damage was estimated at $50,000 at the Catholic church and $1,000 at the Methodist church, Fox reported.

Also, headstones in the cemetery of a Baptist church were vandalized. Authorities believed the three incidents were related, according to the Post. 

Neither news story referred to abortion as a possible motive for the suspected arsons.

A juvenile was arrested in connection with the two fires about a week later, according to news reports quoting police and fire officials. The officials did not cite any possible motive and said the case was being handled in juvenile court. Juvenile court proceedings typically are confidential. 

Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, told PolitiFact on Sept. 1, "There was no indication as to a motive, or that it was related to abortion."

The Rev. Samuel Giese, pastor of the Catholic church, said at Mass on July 10 that the church was set on fire and vandalized because of the Catholic faith’s stance against abortion.

But Giese later told PolitiFact that his comments at the time were based on assumptions, partly because pro-abortion rights demonstrations had been staged outside his church. He said fire investigators later told him that "they did not believe that the pro-life stance of the church was the primary motivation" of the teen who was arrested. 

The Rev. Kara Scroggins, pastor of the Methodist Church, told PolitiFact there was no indication that the motive for the arson at her church was related to abortion, and that she was told the suspect is severely mentally ill. She noted that the United Methodist Church supports abortion being a legal option and that her sermon after Roe v. Wade was overturned was "decidedly ‘pro-choice.’"

Earlier Catholic church fire 

The third headline in the ad came from a Fox News story about a June 26 fire at St. John Neumann Catholic Community church in Reston, about 20 miles northwest of Washington. 

Police reportedly launched an arson investigation after the church was targeted with fire and graffiti two days after the Roe reversal, the Fox News story said. The graffiti included pictures of female genitalia spray-painted on the church’s exterior, along with messages including: "This won’t stop" and "Separation of Church + State."

"The remarks spray painted were related to the recent Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling," the Fairfax County Police Department said at the time. 

The fire was limited to smoldering mulch outside the building, police said. 

Arlington Diocese Bishop Michael Burbidge said in a statement at the time that the painted messages show "the vandalism was a direct result of our unwavering support for unborn children and their mothers."

On its website, St. John Neumann describes its "pro-life ministry," whose activities include protests at a local abortion clinic. 

Fairfax County police Sgt. Lance Hamilton told PolitiFact on Sept. 1 that police are seeking the public’s help on the case. No arrests have been made, and while the graffiti is important evidence, the motive for the crime is unknown, he said.

Our ruling

CatholicVote claimed in an ad that churches are being burned "because they protect unborn babies and women in need."

The ad cited three 2022 arsons and included images of churches that had been leveled by racially motivated arson in 1962.

In two of the 2022 fires, authorities found no evidence that abortion was the motive of the juvenile who was the only person arrested in the crimes. 

Police initially connected the third fire to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade two days earlier but later told PolitiFact they did not know the motive.

The claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

PolitiFact staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.

Update, Sept. 8, 2022: This story has been updated to include a response from Scroggins received after publication. The rating remains unchanged.

Our Sources

YouTube, CatholicVote "Churches burning" post, Aug. 17, 2022

Email, Joshua Mercer, communications director, CatholicVote.org, Aug. 31, 2022

Catholic News Agency, "Rash of attacks on Catholic churches prompts $1 million ad campaign from CatholicVote," Aug. 19, 2022

Catholic News Agency, "Pastor of Catholic church in Bethesda, Maryland, describes arson, desecration of tabernacle," July 10, 2022

YouTube, St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church, Bethesda "Overnight Fire at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church, Bethesda, Maryland" post (1:55), July 10, 2022

Washington Post, "Three churches in Bethesda vandalized, two of them set on fire," published July 10, 2022; updated July 11, 2022

Email, Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Sept. 1, 2022 

Washington Post, "Juvenile arrested in Montgomery church arsons, fire official says," published July 18, 2022; updated July 19, 2022

Fox5DC.com, "Fires, vandalism being investigated at 3 Montgomery County churches," published July 10, 2022; updated July 11, 2022

YouTube, ABC 7 News WJLA "3 Bethesda churches vandalized; 2 churches set on fire" post, July 11, 2022

Fox News, "Virginia Catholic Church targeted with fire, graffiti after SCOTUS overturns Roe," June 28, 2022

WTOP, "‘Particularly vigilant’ — Reston church damaged, Arlington diocese says parishes are ‘alert,’" June 26, 2022 

Washington Post, "Virginia church vandalized after Supreme Court ruling on abortion," June 27, 2022

Interview, Rev. Samuel Giese, pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, Sept. 1, 2022

Arlington Catholic Herald, "Area pastors call for civility, prayer after wave of post-Roe vandalism," July 12, 2022

Arlington Catholic Herald, "Letter from Bishop Michael F. Burbidge to the parishioners of Saint John Neumann Catholic Church following recent vandalism and arson," July 3, 2022

Catholic Standard, "After fires set at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, pastor encourages people to remember ‘we are the Church,’" July 11, 2022

Catholic Standard, "Justice Department urged to address violent attacks on pro-life centers," June 17, 2022

Bethesda Magazine, "Sunday morning fire at Bethesda Catholic church was second one set at local churches, authorities say," July 10, 2022

Bethesda Magazine, "Person involved in vandalism and fires at two Bethesda churches has been identified, county police say,"  July 18, 2022

U.S. Bomb Data Center, "United States Bomb Data Center Arson Incident Report 2021," accessed Aug. 31, 2022

St. Jane Frances de Chantal, "Civic Ministries," accessed Aug. 31, 2022

Getty Images, "Ralph Abernathy and Wyatt Tee Walker Inspect Church," (0:09 of ad) Aug. 15, 1952

Getty Images, "SNCC in Prayer," (0:11 of ad) Sept. 12, 1962 

Getty Images, "Fire at Mount Mary Church," (0:03 of ad), Sept. 12, 1962

Getty Images, "Shady Grove Baptist Church," (0:02 of ad), Aug. 15, 1962 

St. John Neumann Catholic Community, "Pro-Life Ministry," accessed Aug. 31, 2022

Fairfax County Police Department, "Arson and graffiti investigation underway at Reston Church," June 26, 2022

Interview, Sgt. Lance Hamilton, Fairfax County Police Department, Sept. 1, 2022

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Catholic group’s ad attacking Biden overstates role of abortion rights as motive in church arsons

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