In 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein was criticized – fairly, in my view – for implying that a judicial nominee couldn’t serve fairly as a federal judge because she was a devout Catholic and “the dogma lives loudly within you.” Now, Feinstein’s fellow Democrat from California, Sen. Kamala Harris, is also being accused of Catholic-bashing because of questions she posed to another judicial nominee.
Some of the pushback is coming from inside the Democratic House. Without mentioning any names, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has criticized other Democrats for suggesting that Brian C. Buescher, a nominee for a district judgeship in Nebraska, is disqualified because of his Catholicism and his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Both Harris and Gabbard’s fellow Hawaii Democrat, Sen. Mazie Hirono, have homed in on Buescher’s membership in the Knights.
In an opinion column in The Hill, Gabbard wrote: “The party that worked so hard to convince people that Catholics and Knights of Columbus like (1928 presidential candidate) Al Smith and John F. Kennedy could be both good Catholics and good public servants shows an alarming disregard of its own history in making such attacks today.”
This is overstating the case. As with Feinstein’s clumsy questioning of Amy Coney Barrett, now a judge on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, it’s a reach to accuse Harris and Hirono of old-fashioned anti-Catholicism because of the written questions they posed to Buescher. But both senators displayed a cluelessness about Catholic culture that could easily come across as hostility.
In her questions, Harris noted that Buescher had been a member since 1993 of the “all-male” Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus. (By definition, a fraternal organization is all-male.) She asked the nominee: “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” and “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?
The Knights of Columbus, sometimes described as the Catholic answer to the Masons, does oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, as does the Catholic Church generally (including the “liberal” Pope Francis). But it’s not primarily a political organization, as Harris’ questions implied. It’s a fraternal and charitable organization that also offers insurance plans.
In her questions, Hirono said that the Knights had taken “extreme positions,” including support for California’s Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage. Hirono asked if Buescher would promise to resign from the Knights “to avoid any appearance of bias” and recuse himself from cases in which the group has taken a position.
Buescher deftly responded to the senators’ questions. He told Harris that “I joined the Knights of Columbus when I was 18 years old and have been a member ever since. 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 18.”
Buescher also said he would rule impartially and faithfully apply judicial precedent, including on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Harris and Hirono are free not to take these assurances at face value, and the fact that Buescher ran for state attorney general in Nebraska as a pro-life candidate may give them further pause. A judge who as a private lawyer or political candidate fervently opposed abortion shouldn’t allow his beliefs to affect how he rules in abortion cases. If a senator has reason to think a nominee is incapable of separating his religious beliefs from his judicial duties, by all means she should vote against confirmation.
But it’s unfair to presume that mere membership in the Knights of Columbus – or the Catholic Church – makes a judicial nominee biased. And the idea that a teenager joined a venerable Catholic fraternal group in order to sabotage reproductive rights or same-sex marriage is bizarre. (Buescher joined the Knights 19 years before an “evolved” President Barack Obama announced that he supported same-sex marriage.)
Harris is weighing a run for the presidency. She may find that the aspersions she cast on the “all-male” Knights of Columbus will cost her votes with Catholics who don’t see it as a sinister organization.