Faith leaders and religious liberty advocates are up in arms over news that the federal government encouraged banks and other financial institutions to search customers’ private accounts using the search term “religious texts.”
The “religious texts” search term was among those federal officials asked financial institutions to use following the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol, a congressional source with direct knowledge confirmed to The Epoch Times on Jan. 18.
Other terms that banks, credit card companies, and financial firms were asked to use in the searches included “MAGA” and “Trump,” according to the House Judiciary Committee. Federal officials at the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department sought the data from such searches as part of their investigation of the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Religious liberty advocates interviewed by The Epoch Times were unanimous in condemning the searches, which were conducted without judicially authorized search warrants.
“This is beyond alarming,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told The Epoch Times. “If we did a word search in history of the type of activities the Biden administration is engaged in, it would return words like ‘KGB,’ ’totalitarian,‘ ’repressive,’ ‘anti-democratic,’ and ‘grave threat to freedom.’”
Family Research Council is a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group that works on behalf of traditional values, including and especially defense of the family and religious freedom.
“The last place you would anticipate this kind of government intrusion into freedom of speech is America and yet it is rife with this administration and with the ‘deep state,’” Liberty Counsel founder and Chairman Mat Staver told The Epoch Times.
“It is a very serious concern and it should be a serious concern, no matter your political beliefs because if this is permitted, then it just depends on who is in power. This is what despotic governments do to suppress people that they don’t agree with,” he said.
Mr. Staver’s organization, Liberty Counsel, is an Orlando, Florida-based nonprofit religious liberty defense foundation.
‘Mockery of Our Laws’
Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel for the Plano, Texas-based First Liberty Institute, told The Epoch Times the searches exposed by the House panel represent a threat to religious freedom.
“It’s outrageous and frankly chilling that the federal government may be urging banks to monitor Americans for exercising their religious freedom by simply purchasing a Bible or other religious text,” Mr. Shackelford said.
“Weaponizing the federal government against religious Americans freely exercising their constitutionally protected freedom is outrageous and a danger to all our freedoms. It makes a mockery of our laws. When religious people are attacked and religious freedom is not upheld, all other civil liberties—including economic freedom—soon start crumbling.”
“This news should serve as a wake-up call for every American,“ warned Jeremy Tedesco, senior vice president of corporate engagement for Alliance Defending Freedom. ”The revelation that the government is working with financial institutions to flag everyday American citizens as ’threats’ because they shop at Cabelas, Dick’s Sporting Goods, or buy religious texts is terrifying.
“No one should live in fear that law enforcement or a financial service provider will flag their account based on the exercise of their constitutionally protected rights.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said in a Jan. 17 statement that the searches were sought by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Stakeholder Integration and Engagement in the Strategic Operations of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), in conjunction with the FBI.
Mr. Jordan wrote a Jan. 17 letter to Noah Bishoff, the former FinCEN director who is now the anti-money laundering officer for Plaid Inc., a San Francisco digital financial platform developer and marketer.
“According to this analysis, FinCEN warned financial institutions of ‘extremism’ indicators that include ‘transportation charges, such as bus tickets, rental cars, or plane tickets, for travel areas with no apparent purpose,’ or ‘the purchase of books (including religious texts) and subscriptions to other media containing extremist views,’” Mr. Jordan wrote.
“In other words, FinCEN used large financial institutions to comb through the private transactions of their customers for suspicious charges on the basis of protected political and religious expression.”
Officials’ Testimony Sought
Mr. Bishoff was asked to provide testimony to the House Judiciary panel about the searches, as was Peter Sullivan, senior private sector partner for outreach in the Strategic Partner Engagement Section of the FBI.
“Freedom of Religion is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution,” Mr. Jordan told The Epoch Times. “It should frighten every American that the federal government is watching people based on their purchases. This is as wrong as it gets and we will continue to expose this blatant attack on faith and civil liberties.”