On Wednesday, Jan. 16, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution affirming that it considers it unconstitutional to disqualify a federal nominee from office on the basis of membership to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization. The resolution was a sharp rebuke to Democratic senators who recently questioned a judicial nominee about his membership in the charitable organization.
The resolution, which was submitted by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), expressed “the sense of the Senate” that “disqualifying a nominee to Federal office on the basis of membership in the Knights of Columbus violates the Constitution of the United States.”
Last month, senators issued a series of questions to Brian Buescher, nominee to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked Buescher whether he would end his membership with the Knights of Columbus to avoid “appearance of bias” and recuse himself from “all cases” in which the organization has taken a position. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) also extensively questioned Buescher on his membership to the organization.
The third clause of Article VI of the United States Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In addition, the First Amendment guarantees Americans’ “free exercise” of religion.
In a speech to the Senate, Sen. Sasse pointed out that the “clear implication” of the senators’ questions was that Buescher’s religious beliefs and affiliations made him “potentially unfit for federal service.” Sen. Sasse called his resolution a simple reminder of “basic 101 civics truths.”
“If a Senator has a problem with this resolution, you're probably in the wrong line of work, because this is what America is,” Sen. Sasse said. “This is a super basic point – no religious tests. If someone has a problem with this resolution, what other parts of the Constitution are you against? Freedom of the press? Women's right to vote? Freedom of speech?
“This isn't hard. No religious test for serving on the federal bench. We should, in this body, rebuke these anti-Catholic attacks,” he concluded.
Sen. Sasse’s resolution quoted former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, who faced “significant anti-Catholic bigotry” during his candidacy. In response, Kennedy said:
“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist…. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you, until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”
Sen. Hirono and Sen. Harris have faced widespread criticism for their questions, including from their own party. In a Jan. 8 op-ed in The Hill, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) condemned such “religious bigotry.”
“I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers Buescher’s Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus,” Rep. Gabbard wrote. “If Buescher is ‘unqualified’ because of his Catholicism and affiliation with the Knights of Columbus, then President John F. Kennedy, and the ‘liberal lion of the Senate’ Ted Kennedy would have been ‘unqualified’ for the same reasons.”
Several Republican senators and religious and political leaders also condemned the questioning. Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, reminded his fellow Knights of their constitutional protections.
“Any suggestion that the Order’s adherence to the beliefs of the Catholic Church makes a Brother Knight unfit for public office blatantly violates those constitutional guarantees,” Anderson wrote.