‘Against the Forces of Prejudice’
More voices come to the defense of the Knights and speak out against religious tests for federal office
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification” for public office. In recent months, however, several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have called into question judicial candidates’ Catholic faith and their membership in the Knights of Columbus.
In a Jan. 1 letter, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson reminded members that the Order has stood against religious prejudice throughout its history. “From our founding,” he wrote, “we have embodied the truth that a good Catholic is a good citizen who shows civility and dignity even in the face of discrimination.”
The February issue of Columbia featured the full text of the supreme knight’s letter and excerpts from several prominent op-eds written by others, each decrying the senators’ questions as an attempt to impose a religious test on the judiciary.
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska submitted a resolution in the Senate, defending nominees’ membership in the Knights of Columbus. Sasse gave an impassioned speech in defense of religious liberty, and the resolution was approved unanimously without amendment Jan. 16.
What follows are excerpts from Sen. Sasse’s speech and the full text of the resolution, as well as additional commentary.
From a speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate Jan. 16:
I RISE TODAY to offer a very basic resolution. I want senators to unanimously reaffirm our oath of office to a Constitution that rejects religious bigotry. It is useful to regularly remind ourselves that Americans are a First Amendment people. Each of the five freedoms in the First Amendment — speech, press, religion, assembly, protest — they define who we are. …
And, just as the First Amendment prohibits the government from dictating anyone’s religious beliefs, so too the Constitution explicitly rejects religious tests for federal office. … This isn’t a Republican belief. This isn’t a Democratic belief. This is an American belief. But tragically, over the last couple of years some strange things have been happening in this body, and we seem to be forgetting some of those basic 101 American civics truths.
I want to tell you a story. Brian Buescher from my state was recently nominated by the president to be a federal judge for the district of Nebraska. This is an honor for him and for his family. It’s a celebration of his brain and his work ethic and his integrity. Oh, by the way, Brian is also Catholic and he’s an active member of the Knights of Columbus. …
Well, this is where our story gets weird, because at Brian’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee called the Knights of Columbus an extremist organization. Huh?
It got worse. Brian then got a letter from a member of this body asking him if he would resign his membership in the Knights of Columbus if he were confirmed to the federal bench to “avoid the appearance of bias.”
This is nuts. … This is the same kind of garbage that was thrown at a member of this body, John F. Kennedy, 60 years ago when he was campaigning for the presidency. And so today I’ve introduced a resolution, a 101-level basic resolution, that simply reaffirms the belief of this body in American religious liberty.
Below is the text of S.Res.19, the U.S. Senate resolution introduced by Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and adopted by unanimous consent Jan. 16:
Expressing the sense of the Senate that disqualifying a nominee to federal office on the basis of membership in the Knights of Columbus violates the Constitution of the United States.
Whereas, throughout the history of the United States, the religious liberty protected by both the First Amendment and the No Religious Test Clause of the Constitution of the United States has been at the heart of the American experiment;
Whereas, in 1960 the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy was met with significant anti-Catholic bigotry;
Whereas then-Senator Kennedy responded to this bigotry with these timeless words: “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday again be, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. … Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you, until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”;
Whereas the Knights of Columbus (in this preamble referred to as the “Knights”) constitute the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world;
Whereas the Knights have a proud tradition of standing against the forces of prejudice and oppression such as the Klu Klux Klan and Nazi Germany;
Whereas the Knights are founded on the principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism; and
Whereas, in 2017, the Knights made more than $185 million dollars of charitable contributions and volunteered more than 75.6 million service hours: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that disqualifying a nominee to federal office on the basis of membership in the Knights of Columbus violates clause 3 of Article VI of the Constitution of the United States, which establishes that Senators “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support the Constitution” and “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
— Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, represents the state of Nebraska.
From “For Tender, Heroic Men — the Knights of Columbus” — National Review, Jan. 14:
SINCE THE KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS became a political issue recently, a constant refrain I’ve seen on social media is something along the lines of “What do you mean, the pancake-breakfast guys?” The point being: Could you be picking on nicer guys?
But it is so much more than that. The Knights of Columbus are about virtue and service. The United States — and the world — would not be the same without the Knights of Columbus. I’d have a lot less hope without the Knights of Columbus. …
The Knights are far from an “extremist” organization that a judge ought to take leave of. To the contrary, we need more of the Knights. A judge needs the fraternity all the more. But every man, whatever his calling, can benefit. And we should be thankful that they’re a part of the life of our country.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.
From a Feb. 4 letter to Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, respectively:
I WRITE TO EXPRESS my deep concern with recent incidents of religious intolerance displayed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. … In recent months, multiple nominees to the federal judiciary have been interrogated about their membership in the Knights of Columbus, with the implication that participation in the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the country … could be disqualifying. To call out the Knights of Columbus for derision is simply appalling. …
These lines of questioning amount to a religious test — a test, in these cases, which discriminates against Catholics. However, my concern over these incidents extends beyond my own Church. Historically, Jewish and Muslim, as well as Catholic and other leaders, have faced discrimination and sometimes outright persecution as they have sought to serve in public office. …
I implore you: End these discriminatory questions and refrain from further imposing religious tests on judicial nominees.
— Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., serves as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty.