‘Anti-Catholic bigotry’? Judicial nominee grilled by Senate Democrats over Knights of Columbus ties

U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on CNN's 'State of the Union,' September 23, 2018.
U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on CNN's "State of the Union," September 23, 2018. | (Screenshot: CNN)

Senate Democrats recently questioned a federal judicial nominee over his ties to the noted Catholic charity the Knights of Columbus, an act which some have described as anti-Catholic. 

Brian C. Buescher, an Omaha-based lawyer, was nominated by President Donald Trump to sit on the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.

Earlier this month, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent on-the-record questions to Buescher on a variety of issues.

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Senator Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, the Senate's first Buddhist, took issue with the fact that Buescher had been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1993, stating that she believed that the Catholic organization had “taken a number of extreme positions.”

“For example, it was reportedly one of the top contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage,” explained Hirono, referencing California’s 2008 referendum in which a majority of state voters passed an amendment to their state constitution defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?”

Buescher responded that the Knights of Columbus are an international Catholic service organization and that he has not “drafted any policies or positions for the national organization.”

“If confirmed, I will abide by the Code of Conduct of United States Judges and will not affiliate with any organization in violation of the Code,” he added.

When Hirono asked Buescher if he will recuse himself from any cases tied to the Knights of Columbus, the nominee replied that the Catholic organization “does not have the authority to take personal political positions on behalf of all of its approximately two million members.”

Hirono also questioned whether Buescher can be expected to “deal with reproductive rights and abortion issues fairly and impartially” given his “membership in this organization.”

Senator Kamala D. Harris of California, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, also questioned the appointee over his ties to the Knights of Columbus, asking questions regarding the Catholic organization’s stated opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” Sen. Kamala asked. “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?”

Kathleen Blomquist, spokesperson for the Knights of Columbus, denounced the line of written questions in an interview with the Catholic News Agency that was published last Friday.

“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,” said Blomquist.

“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.”

Also in response, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of the Washington, DC Knights of Columbus sent an open letter to Harris, Hirono and their staff, inviting them to join in one of its charitable endeavors in order to learn more about the organization. 

"We wish to formally invite you all to join us for any social or charitable event. In fact, this February we are doing the Polar Plunge to raise funds for DC Special Olympics. You and anyone you know are more than welcome to join us either jumping in the cold water or sponsoring our team," the letter stated in part. 

In an op-ed for National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru urged Harris and Hirono to simply state the true intent of their questioning. 

"Among the many stupidities of this campaign against the Knights is its superfluity. Buescher is voluntarily affiliated with two even larger organizations that are on record in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage: the Catholic church; the Republican party. When running for attorney general of Nebraska in 2014, he called himself “an avidly pro-life person.” If Harris and Hirono want to maintain that all judicial nominees must support abortion, beyond just saying that they will respect existing law, then they should just say that there are scores of millions of Christians they would never allow on the federal bench on account of their beliefs. There is no need to launch an attack on the Knights," he wrote.

Senate Democrats were also accused of expressing an anti-Catholic bias during the confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett, who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. 

"I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that's of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in reference to Barrett's faith commitments. 

Hirono followed Feinstein with a similar line of questioning, suggesting that Barrett's Catholic beliefs disqualified her.  

Hirono also made controversial remarks amid the contentious hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court judge. 

Kavanaugh was accused of attempted rape. In an interview with CNN, Hirono suggested that his judicial philosophy made it more likely that he was guilty. 

"I put his denial in the context of everything that I know about him in terms of how he approaches his cases," she said. 

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