Commentary Religion

Stoking Fire: The Knights of Columbus’ Efforts Against Choice and Marriage Equality

Eleanor J. Bader

Although many local chapters of the Knights of Columbus, which is well over a century old, still devote themselves to aiding the indigent and disabled, a new report published by Catholics for Choice reveals how for the past two decades, the bulk of the organization’s fundraising and activism have gone to bolster anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality initiatives.

More than 130 years ago, in 1882, when Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, bigots were arguing that the influx of Catholic immigrants to the United States posed a potential danger to the body politic. After all, what if they favored the Pope over domestic policymakers?

The result of this prejudiced viewpoint was that countless Catholics—particularly widows and children—were left in extreme financial need. And Anti-Catholic ideology was not just promulgated by individual hate-mongers. According to Knights of Columbus: Crusaders for Discrimination, a report published by Catholics for Choice (CFC), “Anti-Catholic attitudes of the day led some insurance companies to refuse coverage for Catholic immigrants.” McGivney created the Knights to address this issue, with charity and unity as its guiding principles.

The group has since grown to become the largest Catholic lay organization in the world, with 1.8 million male members. “Over the years,” the report continues, “fraternity and patriotism were added, but the Order’s strong American sentiment was already reflected in the choice of Christopher Columbus as its patron.”

Charity, unity, and patriotism, of course, can mean different things to different people, and their meanings can change over time. Still, the report explains that despite the fact that many local chapters of the Knights continue to devote themselves to aiding the indigent and disabled, for the past two decades, the bulk of the organization’s fundraising and activism have gone to bolster anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality initiatives.

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Sexism plays a key role in the Knights’ philosophy, and CFC notes that the exclusion of female members is predicated on a worldview “that doesn’t include women’s agency, particularly in relation to reproductive rights.” What’s more, the report adds, the fraternity publishes and distributes a ludicrously essentialist pamphlet, The Gift of Women, written by Dr. Maria Fedoryka. Fedoryka’s message? “The key feature of femininity [is] receptivity … to accept and affirm everything simply as it is. This is contrasted with the masculine soul, which reflects God’s creativity, and which has been fashioned to take initiative — to make and to do.”

On a practical level, the Knights seemingly recognize that this alleged dichotomy between men and women may need a little push. Enter technology. To wit, since 2009, the Knights have raised funds to buy ultrasound machines for deceptive crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs); to date, says Catholics for Choice, more than 290 have been purchased at a cost of more than $8.5 million.

“Many Knights of Columbus members may believe that there are too many abortions,” CFC spokesperson David Nolan told Rewire. “They see the machines as helping women make fully informed choices.”

But the Knights’ anti-choice work doesn’t end there. Knights of Columbus members are encouraged to join forces with 40 Days for Life, a group characterized by CFC as extremist. Twice a year, 40 Days activists organize sit-ins outside abortion facilities. During the nearly six-week protests, demonstrators harass patients and clinicians and have, at times, blocked health center doors.

In addition, Knights raise money for anti-choice rallies and marches, as well as for anti-contraception messaging. Their tentacles further extend to Life Athletes, an athletic league that promotes sexual abstinence until heterosexual marriage.

But back to ultrasounds. The Knights believe that if a woman “sees her baby,” she will be unable to go through with an abortion. While this conclusion is certainly specious, let’s stick to the issue of dollars and cents, for the fact of the matter is that ultrasound equipment doesn’t come cheap. Depending on whether the equipment is portable or stationary, new or used, the machines can cost anywhere from $13,000 to $120,000.

How do the Knights pay for this equipment? The lion’s share of the money comes from the sale of life, medical, and long-term care insurance, or, what the Knights website calls “income armor.” It’s a business with “more than $92 billion of insurance in force,” the site says, and is complete with 1,400 sales agents who “protect families from the financial ruin caused by the death of a breadwinner.”

Knights of Columbus insurance is an amazingly under-the-radar enterprise. Unlike ING, Prudential, or SelectQuote, Knights of Columbus insurance plans are not advertised, and many non-Catholics are completely unaware of them. “Outreach for insurance sales is done at parish events, social functions, and fundraisers,” said CFC’s David Nolan. “The assumption is that if you are approached by fellow Catholics after church, you’re more likely to buy insurance from them because you know them and trust them. There is constant pressure on Knights from both the Diocese and from local parishes to find new sales leads. The Knights have a very large network of people who are continually reaching out to find someone who might buy a policy.”

The effort literally pays off. The Knights of Columbus website boasts 2013 assets of $19.8 billion.

This money has clearly contributed to the staying power and expansion of CPCs. It has also bolstered—albeit largely unsuccessfully—many state efforts to derail same-sex marriage. CFC cites a report by the Equally Blessed coalition, which includes Call to Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, and New Way Ministries, that alerted progressives to the Knights’ work in promoting heterosexism. The report “focused on what had been a little-known phenomenon—the fraternal order was funneling huge sums into state anti-marriage equality campaigns, sometimes in its own name and sometimes under the aegis of other entities such as the National Organization for Marriage [NOM],” says CFC. More than $1 million went to, a California group, in 2008; another $1 million went to NOM in 2009. The group’s total contributions have amounted to more than $7 million, spread between California, Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota; all told the K of C presence was felt in 30 state anti-marriage equality drives.

“The catch phrases ‘life and family’ or ‘marriage and family’ appear in the titles or mission statements of many of the Knights’ grantees, reflecting an overlap between antichoice and anti-same-sex marriage initiatives,” the report concludes.

All of this, however, pales in light of the Knights’ status as a tax-free entity. CFC questions “whether the Knights’ charitable work is enough to offset the enormous tax benefits the fraternity receives, given that the insurance arm of the order ranks in the top one percent of the North American insurance market.”

For the rest of us, CFC issues a stern reminder: The fact that “the Knights donated $44.8 million to programs opposing reproductive rights, marriage equality, true religious liberty or some combination of these” between 2004 and 2012 makes clear just how well-heeled some of our adversaries are. That said, as LGBT marriage proponents have shown, taking the moral high ground can sometimes trump money. In the reproductive justice movement, it’s going to have to.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Clinton Hits Back Against GOP’s Voter Suppression Efforts

Ally Boguhn

“When [Scott] Walker's Republican allies sat down to write this voter ID law, they knew full well it would unfairly target communities of color and prevent 300,000 mostly poor, elderly and student Wisconsinites from voting,” Clinton wrote. “In fact, that was the whole idea.”

Donald Trump secured enough delegates to win the Republican presidential nomination this week, and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton sounded off on GOP-imposed voting restrictions.

Associated Press Declares Trump the Republican Nominee

Trump has won enough delegates to become the nominee for the Republican Party, according to a Thursday count by the Associated Press (AP).

Trump’s victory comes as little surprise given that he was only ten delegates away from the nomination after winning Tuesday’s primary contest in Washington state. According to AP, a count including unbound delegates was enough to put the presumptive nominee over the edge:

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The New York businessman sealed the majority by claiming a small number of the party’s unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the national convention in July. Among them was Oklahoma GOP chairwoman Pam Pollard.

“I think he has touched a part of our electorate that doesn’t like where our country is,” Pollard said. “I have no problem supporting Mr. Trump.”

It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination. Trump has reached 1,239 and will easily pad his total in primary elections on June 7.

The billionaire’s win marks the end of a heated primary season. However, the departure of Trump’s rivals from the race doesn’t mean the end of their influence on the election. Former challengers Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) both control their delegates, “potentially giving them influence over the direction of the party’s platform at the Republican convention July 18-21 in Cleveland,” according to the New York Times.

Abortion rights have been a key issue among GOP candidates battling to showcase their extremism on the subject throughout the race, and may play a large role at the convention. Trump told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in April that he would “absolutely” look to change the party’s platform on abortion to include exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment—much to the dismay of conservatives and anti-choice activists.

Cruz backers and other influential Republicans have reportedly moved to block “language that could be added to the platform or watered down in the existing party roadmap on abortion, transgender rights and same-sex marriage,” according to CNN.

Clinton Pitches Expansion of Voting Rights in Wisconsin Op-Ed

Clinton pushed her plans to expand voting rights in an op-ed published Wednesday in Wisconsin’s Journal Sentinel.

Clinton used Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which may have disenfranchised as many as 300,000 voters in April’s presidential primary, to discuss barriers to voting and the communities they impact. “When Walker’s Republican allies sat down to write this voter ID law, they knew full well it would unfairly target communities of color and prevent 300,000 mostly poor, elderly and student Wisconsinites from voting,” Clinton wrote. “In fact, that was the whole idea.”

The former secretary of state noted that laws suppressing voter turnout are popping up in states with GOP-majority legislatures. “From Alabama to South Carolina, to Texas, state legislatures are working hard to limit access to the voting booth,” Clinton wrote. “And since it’s clear we now have to be vigilant everywhere, as president, I would push for taking several additional actions at the national level.”

Over the course of the 2016 election season, 17 states will experience new voting restrictions—including voter ID laws and registration restrictionsfor the first time, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Clinton detailed the specifics of her platform to expand voting access. Her four-pronged approach included urging Congress to act on restoring the protections in the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013; implementing reforms to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration pertaining to early and absentee voting; creating a “a new national standard of 20 days of early in-person voting everywhere”; and instituting universal voter registration for all Americans when they turn 18.

Clinton on the campaign trail has repeatedly addressed voting rights and Republican efforts to suppress votes. The Democratic presidential candidate outlined a similar plan to improve access to the polls in a June 2015 speech in Houston, Texas.

“We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country,” Clinton said at the time, according to MSNBC. “What is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.”

What Else We’re Reading

Of Trump’s 70 paid campaign staff members, 52 of themor roughly 75 percentare men, reports Laura Basset for the Huffington Post. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign also has some troubling gender demographics: none of the ten highest paid employees on staff are women.

Meanwhile, those over at New York Magazine’s The Cut wonder “who are the women who make up 25 percent of Trump’s campaign staff and are they okay?”

The Atlantic details Hillary Clinton’s “Medicare for More” health-care platform.

Would you be surprised if we told you that Trump’s new Christian policy adviser is a televangelist who believes he single-handedly stopped a tsunami and that AIDS is caused by “unnatural sex”?

The [Trump] campaign probably won’t choose “a woman or a member of a minority group” for Trump’s running mate, adviser Paul Manafort told the Huffington Post in an interview published Wednesday. “In fact, that would be viewed as pandering, I think,” Manafort said.

Vox’s Dara Lind explains the problem with Manafort’s admission: “The assumption: The only reason someone might pick a woman or person of color for a job would be because they’re a woman or person of color.”

Trump’s proposals for colleges and universities have at least one thing in common with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), but “could lock poor students out of college,” Donald Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco, writes for the New Republic.

More bad news for the Republican presidential candidate: Many white women living in the suburbs of swing states whose votes are needed for Trump to win the general election just aren’t feeling him. Sad!

“There are more examples of shark attacks in the United States and exploding toilets than there was of voter fraud,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) said this week, referring to a conservative myth that leads to legislation perpetuating voter suppression. Larsen is a part of the newly-formed Voting Rights Caucus, which was created to “educate the public about their rights as voters, advance legislation that blocks current and future suppression tactics, and brainstorm creative ways to bring our election process into the 21st Century.”

An Ohio court ruled that former Republican presidential candidate Kasich’s efforts to cut early voting days are “unconstitutional and … accordingly unenforceable.” The state of Ohio has filed an appeal to the decision.

Janell Ross examines “the race-infused history” behind the disenfranchisement of those who have been convicted of felonies.