From its inception, the Knights of Columbus has defended religious liberty

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The Knights of Columbus was founded at a time in U.S. history when Catholics often faced harsh discrimination and were frequently looked down upon as morally and socially inferior. The Order was founded in 1882 in part to combat the anti-Catholic prejudices of the day and help Catholics make their way in the young nation with their faith and their families intact.

True to its roots, the Knights of Columbus throughout its history has stood up for religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The fight for religious liberty has taken many forms — from 19th-century efforts to dispel suspicions that Catholics could not be faithful citizens due to their loyalty to the pope, to current support for the Little Sisters of the Poor in their Supreme Court case to oppose the government mandate on abortifacient and contraceptive coverage for employees in their homes for elderly poor people.

Other major efforts over the years include: battling legal threats to Catholic education in the Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters; standing up to Ku Klux Klan initiatives to have Catholics reduced to second-class citizens in public programs and government policies; supporting the Church in Mexico against an anticlerical national government in a conflict that saw the martyrdom of six Knights of Columbus priests who are now saints; and promoting patriotism and religious freedom during the Cold War, an effort exemplified by the key role of the Knights of Columbus in encouraging the U.S. Congress to pass a bill, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower on Flag Day 1954, adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

As the Little Sisters of the Poor case illustrates, the struggle for the free exercise of religion is not simply a chapter from the nation’s distant past. It continues to this day and the struggle formed the basis of the resolution “In Defense of Religious Liberty” passed at the Knights of Columbus’ annual Supreme Convention in August 2016. Declaring our times to be a “decisive moment” in history for the defense of this first freedom, the resolution reads, in part:

BE IT RESOLVED, that as citizens and as Knights of Columbus, we will remain steadfast in our support for the free exercise of religion as it is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents recognizing religious freedom; and

FURTHER RESOLVED, that we stand firm in our conviction that the full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to “freedom of worship” as some have attempted, but must include full “freedom of religion,” which necessarily encompasses the public dimension of religion, the freedom from persecution or discrimination on the basis of conscience and belief, and the fact that believers are called to play an active role in building the social order … and

FURTHER RESOLVED, that our struggle for religious freedom at this decisive moment in our history is not only for our sake, but for the sake of our children, our grandchildren and all future generations, so that they too may know a country that is “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The Knights of Columbus is fortunate that the Order’s supreme chaplain, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, serves on the frontlines for this important issue as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Recognizing that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, the Knights of Columbus has extended its efforts overseas, assisting Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East who are persecuted by ISIS. After a concerted effort by the Knights, which included researching, compiling and submitting a detailed report to the U.S. government, the Department of State declared the victimization of Christians and other minorities in that region to be genocide, recognizing the ruthless and inhumane methods of ISIS to rid the land of Christianity and other minority religions.

The Knights of Columbus has also been a leader in providing lifesaving aid to the refugees driven from their homelands by ISIS. The Christian Refugee Relief Fund has raised more than $12 million which has been disbursed through the bishops and clergy of the area to supply emergency food, clothing, temporary housing and schooling for the thousands of families left homeless.

In his message to the 2015 Supreme Convention, Pope Francis thanked the Knights of Columbus for calling international attention to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and expressed gratitude “for the practical solidarity shown to suffering individuals and families through the recently established Christian Refugee Relief Fund.”

The strength of the Middle Eastern Christians and their courageous witness to their faith should serve as an inspiration to all Christians of the paramount importance of our faith in Christ above all worldly considerations.

Action Points

  1. Have you experienced ridicule or rejection because of your sincerely held Catholic beliefs?
  2. Learn more about the government’s case against the Little Sisters of the Poor.
  3. As a sign of solidarity with suffering Christians, consider giving to the Christian Refugee Relief Fund.