Our Leaders Can—and Must—Ask Tough Questions About Religious Freedom

President Trump will undoubtedly use his State of the Union address tonight to appease religious arch-conservatives that helped elect him with stridently anti-abortion rhetoric that speaks to a narrow slice of the faithful electorate. But as we usher in a historic new Congress that embodies our religious plurality, we must also remember that our society allows for free religious exercise—and protects against religious influence in politics.

Senators Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris recently came under fire for asking a pretty basic question of U.S. District Court nominee Brian Buescher during his nomination hearing: whether his membership in the vehemently anti-abortion, anti-LGBT organization the Knights of Columbus would cloud his judicial impartiality on these issues.

It should be perfectly normal for our members of Congress to question conservative political or judicial nominees about their independence on matters that can be deeply consequential to women, LGBT communities and other Americans. Yet we continue to see politicians attacked for raising important questions about the separation of church and state in our politics.

The Knights’ PR machine immediately went into attack mode, publishing a string of editorials condemning the senators. Their defenders raised the specter of anti-Catholic rhetoric against JFK in the last century. Ultimately, they drew an ultimatum: dare to question an ultra-conservative Catholic and be prepared to face a smack-down that paints you as a bigot.

What was lost in these cries of religious persecution was ultimately why Buescher was asked about his affiliation with the Knights in the first place.

Let’s be clear: The Knights of Columbus are no longer your grandparents’ civic group. Although the all-male Knights of Columbus were originally founded to support and protect the Catholic minority in the U.S. against discrimination, they’ve since abandoned their roots. Instead, the Knights today brazenly use their 501(c)8 status to pour money, effort and influence into political contests and policy debates with an ultra-right agenda that is out of step with everyday Catholics.

Investigations by Catholics for Choice and others found that the Knights have spent more than $10 million since 2014 in direct anti-choice and anti-LGBT lobbying. (They also run a mutual fund that reinvests its profits in anti-choice, anti-LGBT lobbying.) They use a large portion of their time and effort funding ultrasound equipment for fake health centers that actively deceive and pressure women to keep unwanted pregnancies. They spent $1 million in 2008 to support Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and played a major role in a petition campaign in Albuquerque to try to ban later abortion.

They also have a healthy roster of fundamentalist Catholic members—including Buescher and the recently demoted Trump administration official Scott Lloyd.

The Knights want you to believe any questions about their agenda are an attack against Catholicism. But the truth is that they are diverting tax-free resources to advance an agenda—under the guise of religious freedom—that is completely out of touch with the majority of Catholics.

More than 60 percent of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. Catholic voters oppose laws that would allow companies or other institutions to use the owner’s religious beliefs as a reason to deny services to employees or customers, and 71 percent believe all women should have the same access to insurance coverage for birth control, regardless of where they work.

Six in 10 Catholic voters say that abortion can be a moral choice. Eight in ten do not believe Catholic politicians have an obligation to vote on issues according to what the bishops tell them. And 60 percent say churches should keep out of politics altogether.

Senators Harris and Hirono were questioning Buescher based on evidence, not bigotry. Their line of questioning was due diligence to ensure that our jurists can separate hardline religious views from judicial practice. The vast majority of Catholic voters welcome inquiry into a nominee’s background to protect a healthy separation of church and state in our country—and I join other Catholics in applauding members of Congress who stand firm to protect these values we all share.


Cynthia Romero is the director of communications at Catholics for Choice, where she serves as spokesperson and manages press and digital communications to elevate the voices of Catholics that trust women to make ethical reproductive decisions. She is a former Obama administration appointee at USAID and held roles in various human rights organizations. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and an MA from Queens University Belfast.