On Wednesday, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called Democrats out for their anti-Catholic bias in suggesting that members of the Roman Catholic fraternal charity the Knights of Columbus (KoC) would be unfit to serve as judges in the U.S. He jokingly asked Judge Peter Phipps, a nominee for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, if he had ever taken part in a fish fry.
“Are you now or have you ever been involved in the organization of a fish fry?” Sasse began. Phipps testified that he had. “Judge, did you get questions for the record about being a member of the Knights of Columbus?”
“Yes, associated with my district court nomination,” Phipps replied.
“Do you know why? Because I’m confused. This is a new tradition around here, evidently, trying to figure out if people are members of religious organizations,” Sasse said. “Do you know what the point of the questions for the record about your membership in the Knights of Columbus was?”
“No, Senator, I do not,” Phipps replied.
Sasse asked him “Who are the Knights of Columbus?”
“The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal religious organization that was founded in — I think — the late 19th century,” the nominee responded. KoC was founded in 1882. “One of its original features was not just to promote a sense of people going to church and wanting to engage in extracurricular activities, but a number of men at that point in time had died in factory accidents and other things like that. And so one of the things that the Knights of Columbus tried to do was ensure that if a father had died, that the knights would provide for their family.”
“So it’s much more the stuff of community service, love of neighbor, fish fries, and pool parties than some sort of Da Vinci Code stuff,” Sasse replied. “I just want to be clear that I understand this scary organization you’re a member of.”
“That’s exactly right. It’s a charitable organization,” Phipps explained.
Sasse mentioned “a couple of facts for the record,” so the Senate would be able to more easily consider Catholic nominees. “The Knights of Columbus is the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world. In 2017 — because we don’t have 2018 data yet — the Knights volunteered and contributed more than $185 million to charitable organizations and activities in the U.S. and knights members volunteered just over 75 million 600 thousand service hours in America.”
“Pretty stunning stuff that Alexis de Tocqueville would understand,” the senator added, referring to Tocqueville’s seminal work Democracy in America, in which the French author said America’s greatest strength is its voluntary associations. “The knights have a proud tradition of standing against the forces of prejudice and oppression such as the KKK and the Nazi party in Germany and what’s happening in this committee is absolutely nuts, that we’re asking people questions about why they’re members in the largest Catholic fraternal organization in America.”
Sasse then asked Phipps to discuss the First Amendment’s five freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly, and protest. “I think that each one of those freedoms is core,” the nominee said. Sasse agreed that “they are the beating heart of what America means.”
“I really hope we reconsider this new tradition on this committeee of asking people about their religious commitments. We should ask them about their oath of office to the Constitution and whether or not they can do that free from bias,” the senator concluded.
Numerous Senate Democrats like 2020 candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) have attacked the Knights of Columbus during confirmation hearings, suggesting that the Catholic organization’s positions against abortion and for the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman are beyond the pale.
“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” Harris asked nominee Brian Buescher last December. “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?” she demanded. “Do you believe the right to marry carries an implicit guarantee that everyone should be able to exercise that right equally?”
As Sasse later explained, Harris and Hirono were “implying that Knights of Columbus membership might be disqualifying for the bench.”
Yet Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) seemed to take offense at Sasse’s defense of KoC.
“I don’t understand Senator Sasse’s question. Like my father, I’ve been a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus. … Even though I’m half-Italian, I don’t remember any discussion of Da Vinci. What are you referring to? Is this something that I missed?” Leahy asked.
Leahy described anti-Catholic prejudice that he and his father faced, including “No Catholic Need Apply” signs and “No Irish Need Apply” signs. He seemed to think Sasse was calling for Catholics to be barred from the federal bench. “What is Da Vinci? I don’t understand and I’m a little bit annoyed as a member of the KOC.”
“Well I think it would be great for you to huddle with some of your colleagues because obviously, I was asking the question sarcastically,” Sasse replied. “Obviously the Knights of Columbus is a wonderful organization, that’s my point. You’ve got people on your side of the aisle wondering if someone who’s a member of the Knights of Columbus should be able to be a judge. … You’ve got people on your side who are implying that Knights of Columbus membership might be disqualifying for the bench.”
Leahy still didn’t seem to understand Sasse’s point — perhaps because he thought anti-Catholic bias could not be a problem in the Democratic Party. Yet the Republican assured his Democratic colleague, “I think you and I are aligned, sir.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and quick to crack a joke, butted in, “Well, they’ve got cool hats and swords so that’s what I know.”
Joking aside, it is utterly appalling that Democrats seem to be reviving the ugly spirit of anti-Catholic bigotry in the name of abortion and LGBT activism.
“There have been times in our country’s past when uninformed or prejudiced people questioned whether Catholics could be good citizens or honest public servants,” and many thought them “unfit for public office,” KOC Supreme Knight Carl Anderson wrote in a letter. “Sadly, it seems that in some quarters, this prejudice remains.”
The very specter of anti-Catholic bigotry Patrick Leahy and his father fought to overcome has once again become mainstream in American politics — and it’s his very party demonizing his organization.
Sadly, Leahy has joined a similar effort. In October 2018, he joined Harris, Hirono, and other Democrats — including 2020 candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — in attacking Allison Rushing, a Trump judicial nominee, over her participation in Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) events. These Democrats cited the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)’s false “hate group” accusation against ADF, a nonprofit Christian law firm with an impressive Supreme Court record. The SPLC has accused ADF of being an “anti-LGBT hate group” because it advocates for religious freedom. In order to bolster this false accusation, the SPLC has twisted the facts of ADF cases out of context.
If Leahy will demonize conservative Christians at ADF, he should not be surprised when his fellow Democrats demonize Roman Catholics at the Knights of Columbus. He seems to think these attacks won’t turn against his organization. On that, he is sorely mistaken.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.