California Senator Kamala Harris is facing charges of religious bigotry for questioning a federal judicial nominee about his membership in the “all-male” Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization opposed to gay marriage and abortion.
Harris and her fellow member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, asked Brian Buescher, President Donald Trump nominee for the Nebraska federal court, about the Knights weeks ago but the inquiries only attracted attention following a Catholic News Agency article last Friday.
Last week, as the controversy festered, the Washington branch of the Knights of Columbus published an open letter inviting Harris and Hirono to take part in one of their charitable events this February, the “polar plunge,” in which participants jump into cold water to raise money for charity.
“We recently read about statements which expressed the fear that the Knights of Columbus held many extreme beliefs,” said the local Knights letter. “It is our great pleasure to assure you that this fear is not grounded in any truth. The Knights of Columbus in general, and [the DC chapter] in particular are dedicated to the three fundamental principles of charity, unity, and fraternity.”
Harris and Hirino have not yet responded to the invitation.
Buescher, a 43-year-old Omaha lawyer, has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since he was 18. Despite the fracas, the questions Harris posed seem reasonable given his ties to the group go back decades. It is routine to ask judicial nominees about their membership in organizations. The insinuation that Harris singled out the Knights because they are Catholic is bereft of any factual basis.
In her interrogatory Harris said to Buescher, “Since 1993, you have been a member of the Knights of Columbus, an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men. In 2016, Carl Anderson, leader of the Knights of Columbus, described abortion as ‘a legal regime that has resulted in more than 40 million deaths.’ Mr. Anderson went on to say that ‘abortion is the killing of the innocent on a massive scale.’”
“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?”
In his reply, Buescher depicted his involvement in the organization as non-political. “My membership has involved participation in charitable and community events in local Catholic parishes.
I do not recall if I was aware whether the Knights of Columbus had taken a position on the abortion issue when I joined at the age of eighteen.”
Harris also pressed Buescher on whether he agreed with Anderson, the Knights leader, that abortion is killing on a massive scale and has caused 40 million deaths. He replied, “I did not draft this language. If confirmed, I would be bound by precedent [on abortion] of the United States Supreme Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and would not be guided by statements made by others.”
Noting that the Knights of Columbus spent $1 million in 2008 to support a California ballot initiative to outlaw gay marriage, Harris asked the nominee if he was aware that the Knights opposed gay marriage when he joined in 1993. Beuscher gave the same kind of answer he did with abortion. “I do not recall if I was aware whether the Knights of Columbus had taken a position on same- sex marriage at the time I joined at the age of 18.”
Harris also pressed Buescher on whether he knew of the Knights campaign for the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. The Omaha barrister again said he had nothing to do with the policy stances of the Knights.
And that was it.
In Senator Hirono’s questions, which are being grouped with Harris’s in press reports that make it sound like they were joint inquires, she called the Knights positions “extreme” and asked whether Beuscher would resign from the fraternal organization if confirmed.
The Knights of Columbus has deemed the questions rife with historic anti-Catholicism. Spokeswoman Kathleeen Blomquist told the Catholic News Agency that “Our country’s sad history of anti-Catholic bigotry contributed to the founding of the Knights of Columbus, and we are proud of the many Catholics who overcame this hurdle to contribute so greatly to our country.”
“We were extremely disappointed to see that one’s commitment to Catholic principles through membership in the Knights of Columbus—a charitable organization that adheres to and promotes Catholic teachings—would be viewed as a disqualifier from public service in this day and age.”