Tom Eblen

Lexington bishop says he’s been threatened with defamation suit over MAGA hat op-ed

Dozens of teens criticized over treatment of Native American veteran at Lincoln Memorial

Covington-Catholic students were criticized over the treatment a Native American elder received when he tried to walk through the group. Nick Sandmann said he -- and his classmates -- were not mocking the man or blocking his path.
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Covington-Catholic students were criticized over the treatment a Native American elder received when he tried to walk through the group. Nick Sandmann said he -- and his classmates -- were not mocking the man or blocking his path.

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Covington Catholic

Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann came face to face with Native American elder Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., launching a national story with repercussions.

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A Catholic bishop says he has received “some pretty ugly stuff and a lot of support, too” since writing a column critical of Covington Catholic High School students for wearing “Make America Great Again” caps at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington said he also has been threatened with a defamation lawsuit by attorneys for the family of the boy pictured prominently in the first viral video of a standoff between the students and a Native American protester near the Lincoln Memorial after the Jan. 18 march.

Stowe didn’t name student Nick Sandmann in his op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com. But Sandmann’s parents have hired lawyers who say they plan to file “a multitude of civil lawsuits”.

Stowe wrote the column Jan. 23 after the boys were criticized by other Catholic leaders, including Bishop Roger Foys of the Diocese of Covington. Foys has since apologized for his quick condemnation of the students’ conduct and said a full investigation is under way.

Subsequent videos emerged showing a more complex situation: The confrontation began after students from the all-male school were taunted with racist and homophobic insults by Black Hebrew Israelite protesters. Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist there for the Indigenous People’s March, stepped between the groups. The boys’ chaperones did not appear to intervene.

The incident has become a Rorschach Test for America’s political polarization. Many liberals still criticize the boys’ behavior and hats, which have become controversial symbols of President Donald Trump. Many conservatives now claim the boys did nothing wrong and are victims of “the liberal media.”

“Without … placing the blame entirely on these adolescents,” Stowe wrote, “it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.”

In an interview Wednesday, Stowe said the Diocese office has been flooded with calls and emails from across the country, both pro and con. He has been criticized in conservative publications, including National Review. Stowe said he hasn’t received any threats, except that of a lawsuit. He also said he hasn’t received any reaction from other bishops or Catholic church leaders or schools of theology.

“I probably should have known that people don’t read beyond the headline very often,” Stowe said of much of the criticism. “Social media has enhanced our intolerance. It shortens our attention span and lessens our ability to go deeper on an issue.”

Lexington Bishop John Stowe washed feet of guests and volunteers at the new Catholic Action Center on Industry Road. The new center is set to open on Monday, April 17th.

Stowe said he wanted to use the incident as “a teaching moment.”

“I come back to that they shouldn’t have been wearing those hats in the first place,” he said. “At the least, not doing tomahawk chops — that’s hard to excuse. I’ve been criticized strongly for implying that (the MAGA caps is) at all racist. But it has been used for that.”

Stowe said many of his critics seem to be Trump supporters. “Because they see everything through a political agenda, they see me as viewing it through a political agenda,” he said.

The church must speak out on moral issues that are political, Stowe said, but it should not align itself with a party or politician. He pointed out that Pope Francis has criticized Trump’s policies on immigrants and refugees, just as he criticized former President Barack Obama for insisting the Affordable Care Act cover contraceptives.

While the Republican Party agrees with the Catholic stand against abortion, Stowe noted that the Democratic Party is closer to the church’s teachings on other “pro-life” issues such as the treatment of immigrants, refugees, minority groups, poor and marginalized people, environmental justice and access to health care.

Stowe’s Franciscan order has close ties to Central America. He speaks Spanish thanks to his work there and in El Paso, Texas, for many years. Stowe said he has been appalled by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and behavior, such as separating immigrant children from their parents seeking asylum at the border. “For me, the bottom line is always the dignity of the person,” he said.

Stowe said one reason the Covington Catholic incident resonated with him was that Lexington Catholic High School was sued for sexual and racial harassment and discrimination in 2016. That prompted the school to emphasize inclusivity, not only to racial minorities and women but to LBGTQ students and those with disabilities.

“I don’t look for the attention or controversy,” said Stowe, who also has been criticized by conservatives for his outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics. “But I think the church has a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”

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Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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