The scrutiny of the religious beliefs of a federal court nominee by Senators Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono has led to criticism for violating article six of the US constitution that states that “there shall be no religious test” for any candidate seeking public office”.
In follow up questions to Brian Buescher’s confirmation hearing in November, Hirono implies that affiliation with the Knights of Columbus [a Catholic-based Fraternal Organisation] would be detrimental to the position of Federal Court Judge, asking “The Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions. If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organisation to avoid any appearance of bias?”. She also suggests that he could easily be lead into a conflict of interest, asking, “If confirmed, will you recuse yourself of all cases in which the Knights of Columbus has taken a position?”
Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a fellow Democrat Congresswoman from Hawaii, led the criticism in an Op-Ed for The Hill. Though she did not explicitly refer to Harris and Hirono, she refers to the nomination of Brian Buescher, and suggests that those involved in the process are “fomenting religious bigotry” when they see his Catholicism and membership of the Knights of Columbus as appropriate to be questioned. She continues to say that “No American should be asked to renounce his or her faith or membership in a faith-based service organization in order to hold public office”.
A letter was also sent, under the banner of the Religious Freedom Institute, by a number of different faith leaders, including Leith Anderson [President of the National Association of Evangelicals], Rabi Mitchell Rocklin [President of the Jewish Coalition of Religious Liberty] and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo [President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops]. Three Muslim leaders have also signed the letter: Imam Dr. Talib M. Shareef [President, of The Nation’s Mosque, Masjid Muhammad], Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed [President, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)] and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf [President of Zaytuna College].
They too call it a ‘religious test’ by Senators “otherwise supportive of civil rights”. They seem particularly troubled that it is a mainstream religious view that is being attacked, perhaps an indication to them of an increasing intolerance to religion in general rather than fringe or extremist elements. They point to the fact that the Knights of Columbus holds the same views as the Catholic Church on the right to live and the nature of sanctity of marriage, calling the organisation an “integral part of the Catholic Church in this country”, and one that has supported the civil rights cause.
Both Rep.Gabbard and the open letter suggest that this is not an isolated incident, pointing also to the example of when Senator Dianne Feinstein told federal judiciary nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic, that “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern” in 2017. As well as attacks in the past on Al Smith and John F.Kennedy, also Catholics and member of the Knights of Columbus, as well as the anti-Semitic rhetoric in Louis D. Brandeis’ confirmation process.
Gabbard has recently announced a 2020 presidential run, and her response to the incident appears to tie into a main theme of her campaign, particularly when considering that one of her opponents is Senator Kamala Harris. In another Op-Ed in Religious News Service on January 27, 2019, Gabbard speaks of her own experience as the first Hindu American to have been elected to Congress and to run for President. She defends herself against accusation of being a ‘Hindu Nationalist’ for meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when other politicians of different faiths have done the same, calling this a religious bigotry that she has experienced during her 2012 and 2014 elections from her Republican opponents; and drawing connections not only to similar statements made questioning the suitability of Muslim Americans for the position of President [by Ben Caron in 2016] and the judicial nomination hearings, but also the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and similar attacks at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and a New York mosque; all of which she sees as connected. She emphasises the importance of religious freedom, stating that ‘Nothing is more important to our democracy than this freedom’.
Her explicit stance is possibly intended to strike a contrast to Senator Harris, whose line of questioning in Buescher’s questioning is still being brought up within the context of her presidential bid. Lloyd Green writes in the Guardian that for conservatives and others, “that will smack of anti-Catholicism and a religious litmus test”, “further complicating Harris’s road to the White House”.
In response to the contraversy Senator Hirono appears to imply that the suggestion that her line of questioning amounts to a religious test is a form of political play. In a speech on January 16 in the Senate, she suggested that a resolution introduced by Senator Ben Sasse condemning such religious tests for federal office and reaffirming religious liberty was embracing ‘the alt-right’s position’, and that such a resolution was “unnecessary because no religious test is being applied to nominees for Federal office.”