The Knights of Columbus was founded, in part, due to the anti-Catholicism that was rampant in the United States during the 19th century and from its earliest days stood against the religious bigotry of the U.S. Know Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the Knights of Columbus defended the legal rights of Catholic schools by providing the funding to the Society of Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary in their lawsuit against the State of Oregon which resulted in a ruling defending religious freedom by the U.S. Supreme Court (Pierce v. Society of Sisters).
At the same time in Mexico, the administration of President Plutarco Calles instituted several anti-Catholic laws and regulations. In response to these policies, Catholic Mexicans and their allies fought back against the government. The intervening Cristero War saw the martyrdom of many Catholics in Mexico, including several Knights of Columbus. The Order worked in the United States to promote awareness of the conflict, and the unjust laws, through a $1 million publicity campaign (approximately $13.5 million in 2021 dollars) and through direct pressure on U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
In more-modern times, the Order has supported the Little Sisters of the Poor’s legal efforts in the United States to continue their ministry to the elderly poor in line with their Catholic beliefs.
The Knights of Columbus continues to advocate for a robust-understanding of religious freedom as described by the Second Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanae, and in documents such as the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (among many others).
The Knights of Columbus’ effort on behalf of religious freedom is not limited to the jurisdictions where it has an active presence. Following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and their subsequent brutal attacks on Christian, Yazidi, and other minority communities in the Middle East, the Knights of Columbus began a months-long campaign to raise awareness of these atrocities and advocate for government intervention.
These efforts included the successful, unanimous passage of two resolutions in the U.S. Congress calling these actions genocide, and the development of a nearly-300-page report making the legal case for genocide and detailing the atrocities committed by ISIS. In March 2016, then-U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared that ISIS was committing genocide against the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Order has worked with presidential administrations of both parties to support these communities.
In addition to advocacy and legal efforts, the Knights of Columbus has also engaged in an important humanitarian mission in the Middle East. Through the Christian Refugee Relief Fund, Knights of Columbus members and councils have raised nearly $30 million to support efforts such as the construction of McGivney House in Irbil to house internally displaced refugees and the rebuilding of towns, like Qaraqosh, that were devastated by ISIS.
Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East report
Resolution: In Defense of Religious Liberty
Resolution: In Solidarity with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East
Resolution: In Solidarity with Persecuted Christians in Africa and East Asia
Program: Christian Refugee Relief Fund
News: Christian Refugee Relief Efforts
News: Pope Francis Iraq Mass
News: 8 Ways the Knights of Columbus Defended Religious Liberty