The Knights of Columbus was founded at a time in U.S. history when Catholics faced harsh discrimination and were frequently looked down upon as morally and socially inferior. Throughout its history, the Knights has stood up for religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Knight’s 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 Middle East Christians and other religious minorities.
1) The Knights fought legal threats to Catholic education
The Compulsory Education Act of 1922 in Oregon required parents or guardians to send children between the ages of eight and sixteen to only public schools. The law was promoted by the Ku Klux Klan against Catholic educators, such as the Society of Sisters. The Knights immediately pledged $10,000 to fight the law, which was later found unanimously unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
2) The Knights stood up against the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-Catholic initiatives
The Oregon case wasn’t the only time the KKK tried to reduce Catholics to second-class citizens in public programs and government policies. They widely spread a “Bogus Oath” to discredit the Knights of Columbus. The Klan even physically attacked Knights and priests — one attack was against a priest who performed a marriage between a recent convert and a Puerto Rican. When the Klan took to such acts of violence, Knights responded by protecting priests, Catholics, Blacks and other Knights from the Klan’s angry mob.
One of the Knights who fought against the Klan and for religious freedom was Msgr. Bernard Quinn, who helped found St. Peter Claver Church, the first parish established for Black Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“It seems to me that no church can exclude any one and still keep its Christian ideals,” Msgr. Quinn said. “The Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and this, plus the fact that church property is tax exempt, ought to mean that anyone can go any place to worship.”
3) The Knights supported Catholics in Mexico during a period of violent anti-Catholicism
During the late 1920s, the Mexican government issued several anti-Catholic laws, which banned Catholic services, barred Catholic education and seized property belonging to the Catholic Church. Many priests were killed or expelled. This catapulted the country into the Cristero War. Knights sent resources to support Catholics facing persecution. Others took up arms. Six Knights were martyred for the faith — they are all now saints.
The film For Greater Glory explores the story of these Knights and other Catholics during the Cristero War. It’s on our list of the top 12 movies that are must watches for every Catholic — check out our guide to the movie.
4) The Knights advocated to protect persecuted American and European Jews
The Knights of Columbus not only defended the religious rights of Jews as well. They produced books showcasing the contributions of Jewish people to American society during a period of nativism. The Knights also advocated for the protection of European Jews at the behest of the Jewish War Veterans in 1938. Supreme Knight Martin Camody wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the U.S. should “use its influence to preserve” the “now sadly persecuted” German Jews by “fanatical groups.”
5) The Knights promoted patriotism and religious freedom during the height of the Cold War
The Knights saw “atheistic” communism as a threat to religious liberty. In response, the Knights of Columbus encouraged 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.
6) The Knights’ supreme chaplain is on the frontlines of religious liberty issues
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore — the current supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus — served as chairman of the Committee on Religious Liberty for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He has emphasized the importance of integrating religious liberty into the public square because, even though religion is a “personal matter, it is not a private matter.”
7) The Knights defended the Little Sisters of the Poor in their legal battles
After the passing of the Affordable Care Act, the Knights wrote amicus briefs in support of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who opposed the government’s mandate on abortifacient and contraceptive coverage for employees in their homes for elderly poor people.
8) The Knights continue to advocate for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East
Since the early 2010s, the Knights of Columbus has assisted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East 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 tens of millions of dollars 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.
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