Americans are a First Amendment people. The five freedoms in the First Amendment – speech, press, petition, assembly, and religion – are at the heart of who we are. In America we talk, we write, we argue, we march, and we worship without fear. That’s true, too, of people who serve, or desire to serve, in public office. Our Constitution goes so far as to explicitly reject a “religious test” for officeholders. This isn’t a Republican principle. It isn’t a Democratic principle. It’s an American principle.
Recently, though, some people seem to have forgotten their Civics 101. Nebraskan Brian Buescher was recently nominated by the President to serve as a federal judge for the district of Nebraska. This is an honor for him, for his family, and for our state. It’s a celebration of his career of service, his work ethic, and his integrity.
Brian happens to be a Catholic, and he’s an active member of the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world. The more than 1.6 million Knights raise millions of dollars for charity and contribute millions of hours of volunteer service here and around the world every year. Like a lot of Nebraska men, Brian joined the Knights of Columbus to give back (and he enjoys a good fish-fry!).
There’s nothing headline-worthy here. Brian, like so many Nebraskans, knows how to be a good neighbor. But at Brian’s recent confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of my Democratic colleagues called the Knights of Columbus an “extreme” organization. Brian was then asked whether he would resign his membership in the Knights of Columbus if he were confirmed to the Federal bench – in order to “avoid the appearance of bias.”
Let’s put it bluntly: this is wrong. The clear implication here is that because Brian chooses to live out his faith, and is part of an organization of other people who do the same, he is therefore unfit for federal service.
We’ve seen this anti-Catholicism before. It’s the same nasty stuff that John F. Kennedy experienced 60 years ago, when he was campaigning for the presidency. It’s unacceptable, and we can’t ignore it when it crops up. As then-Senator Kennedy reminded Americans: “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.”
On January 16, I introduced a resolution asking the U.S. Senate to reaffirm its commitment to religious liberty, and state clearly “that disqualifying a nominee to federal office on the basis of membership in the Knights of Columbus violates the constitution of the United States.” In this, my resolution simply reiterated what countless Americans, of every religious stripe – Protestant and Catholic, Jew and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, agnostic and atheistic, and more – have understood, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
The role of the federal government is not to solve theological debates; it’s to make it possible for people who disagree, even about important things, to live together as neighbors and friends.
I’m encouraged that the Senate unanimously passed this resolution. Religious liberty and the Constitution won.
I hope that it will remind my colleagues, and the citizens we serve, that all of us are dedicated to, and sworn to uphold, a tradition of religious liberty that champions the freedom and dignity of every American.