Senate Democrats are facing renewed charges of anti-Catholic discrimination after quizzing a federal judicial nominee about his membership in the Knights of Columbus.
Democratic Sens. Kamala D. Harris and Mazie Hirono were accused of “religious profiling” after they zeroed in on judicial nominee Brian Buescher’s membership in the 137-year-old fraternal Catholic charitable organization earlier this month in written questions.
“The Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions,” said Ms. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, citing the group’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?”
Ms. Harris asked Mr. Buescher, who became a member 25 years ago as a teenager, “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?”
Mr. Buescher, who said he would abide by the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges regarding his affiliations, said his participation has centered on “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 18,” he replied.
The line of questioning prompted a torrent of criticism from Catholics, conservatives and religious-freedom advocates, who accused Democrats of imposing a religious litmus test on judicial nominees.
“Sens. Harris and Hirono are playing a game: They are engaged in selective religious profiling and sexism,” said Catholic League President Bill Donohue.
Ken Blackwell, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, urged Democrats “to end this tactic of engaging in religious discrimination to destroy people nominated for public office.”
“This isn’t just about the Knights of Columbus or Catholics, this is an ongoing attack from the extremist left of the Democratic Party to silence people of faith and run them out of engaging in public service based on their religious beliefs,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America. “It is pure and simple religious bigotry.”
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have faced criticism before over their approach to Catholic nominees.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California came under fire in September 2017, when she raised questions about Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith, telling the nominee during a hearing that “the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Others have defended the Democrats, saying it was appropriate to ask about Mr. Buescher’s membership in “a fraternal organization with a long record of opposing equal protection of the law for LGBT people,” as one commenter said on the Quora question-and-answer website.
Committee Republicans have pushed back. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch tweeted about the “[a]larming questions from Senate Democrats, showing they are getting more and more comfortable with imposing religious tests on Federal judicial nominees.”
“Hopefully, in the eyes of Democrats you are not disqualified to a be a judge because of your religious affiliations and beliefs,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “The Knights of Columbus are a Catholic charitable organization who have genuinely held beliefs about marriage & abortion.”
Mr. Buescher, a partner with the Omaha law firm Kutak Rock and former county prosecutor, was nominated by President Trump in October to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court in Nebraska.
He is expected to face scrutiny over his 2014 campaign for the GOP nomination for Nebraska attorney general, in which he ran as a pro-life candidate, but questions about his faith smack of “the days of religious intolerance in our country,” said Knights spokeswoman Kathleen Blomquist.
She pointed out that prominent Catholic Democrats such as President John F. Kennedy and former New York Gov. Al Smith were Knights. Pope Francis sent a letter of greeting to the Knights at its 2013 international convention.
“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,” Ms. Blomquist said. “We believe that membership in the Knights of Columbus, which helps everyday men put their Catholic faith into action, is worthy of commendation and not something a nominee for public office should be asked to defend.”
A Catholic men’s organization with nearly 2 million members, the Knights of Columbus was formed in part to fight anti-Catholic bias perpetrated by foes such as the Ku Klux Klan.
The Knights may be best known for their pancake breakfasts and insurance program, but their work includes disaster relief, refugee assistance, a Coats for Kids program and an initiative to provide ultrasound machines for pro-life pregnancy centers.
The group’s Capitol Hill council responded with an open letter inviting Ms. Harris and Ms. Hirono to participate in its annual Polar Plunge to raise money for the Special Olympics. So far the senators have not replied publicly.
“We recently read about statements which expressed the fear that the Knights of Columbus held many extreme beliefs,” said the Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle Council. “It is our great pleasure to assure you that this fear is not grounded in any truth.”