MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to return to that controversy surrounding the Catholic high school group from Kentucky. It's underlined racial and political divisions in this country. While in Washington, D.C., earlier this month for the anti-abortion March for Life, the group was filmed wearing Make America Great Again hats. They engaged in a confrontation with a Native American man and members of a group known as the black Hebrew Israelites. That episode and the explosive reaction to it is also exposing tensions within the Catholic Church regarding support for President Trump. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Covington.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: For Bishop John Stowe, the controversy that has erupted in recent days around the boys from Covington Catholic High School is raising bigger questions, not just about who's right and who's wrong in this complicated story.
JOHN STOWE: The image that it created did damage to the church.
MCCAMMON: Stowe leads the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Ky., south of Covington. In an op-ed for The Lexington Herald-Leader, Stowe wrote he's dismayed by what he sees as, quote, "the association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate."
STOWE: And I think when you have a president now who, throughout his campaign, was demeaning of immigrants, was demeaning of women - to consider that as the person who's pro-life - I think it's problematic when we give him a pass on everything else because of those positions.
MCCAMMON: Stowe says Make America Great Again hats have no place at the March for Life. He says church teachings obligate Catholics to care for all life, including immigrants and refugees. But that message isn't going over well with some Catholics.
RANDALL TERRY: Show some dignity, Bishop. I know you can hear me. Show some courage.
MCCAMMON: Outside the Covington Catholic Diocese on Friday, longtime anti-abortion activist Randall Terry led a tiny band of protesters, who stood on the sidewalk carrying signs with statements like, Bishop Stowe, a wolf in sheep's clothing.
TERRY: Stop playing politics with the church.
MCCAMMON: Terry has been known for decades for leading anti-abortion protests and, at times, blocking access to clinics. He says he's unhappy with Lexington Bishop Stowe and other local Catholic leaders who've promised an investigation into the incident. One of those leaders, the bishop in Covington, issued a letter later on Friday, apologizing for acting too quickly and suggesting he may have come down too harshly on the students. Wearing a Make America Great Again hat, Terry said the whole episode has demonized Trump supporters within the church.
TERRY: This is all about the hat. That's why I'm wearing it. They want to paint everyone who supports President Trump as a racist, and that's just a lie. It's a damnable lie.
MCCAMMON: Terry lives in Memphis and is a Catholic convert. Some local Catholics here agree with him. Fred Summe is with Northern Kentucky Right to Life. He says he supports President Trump's policies on abortion and thinks that issue should be the top priority for Catholics.
FRED SUMME: Other issues we can reasonably disagree on, issues like how should we address the immigration situation, capital punishment, the environment. These are all issues that reasonable Catholic or Christian minds can differ.
MCCAMMON: Other Catholics here in Kentucky have a harder time finding candidates to align with their political beliefs. Jessica Heavrin (ph), who lives in Lexington, says she voted third party in 2016 because she opposes both abortion and many of Trump's policies. Heavrin says she's concerned about how the controversy around Covington Catholic High School reflects on her church.
JESSICA HEAVRIN: For anyone outside the faith looking in, they're thinking, well, you have a bunch of Catholic kids who are being taught in the Catholic school, and they're all wearing, you know, the Trump paraphernalia. What does that tell you? That the school is promoting and allowing that to happen.
MCCAMMON: While Heavrin supports the goals of the March for Life, she says the image of the boys from Covington Catholic in their red Make America Great Again hats reflects poorly on the church and doesn't represent what she and many of her fellow Catholics believe.
Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Covington, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.