New Report: Knights of Columbus Donate Millions to Fight Marriage Equality

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Charles Martel, president of Catholics for Marriage Equality.
Photo: Chuck Colbert

By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter–

Sometimes they dress up like the Three Musketeers, donning fancy, feathery hats, and show up for a grand parade. More often they dress like regular guys, manning pancake breakfasts and parish fish fries. They are the nearly 2 million members of Knights of Columbus, an all-male Roman Catholic fraternal and service organization with a whopping $16.9 billion in assets. And they are perhaps best known for the sale of insurance policies to fund a vast array of charitable activities.

Against Prop 8

But it was no act of charity four years ago when the Knights poured $1.1 million into California to help pass Proposition 8. Indeed, the newly appointed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco was one of the chief architects of Proposition 8. Under his guidance, Catholic organizations in California led the charge in financing the Prop 8 campaign.

And that $1.1 million contribution was not the only big bucks the Knights doled out to fight marriage equality. In recent years, the organization has been funding with gusto quite an anti-LGBT equality crusade nationwide.

$6.25 Millions for anti-marriage equality elsewhere

Overall, between 2005 and 2012, the Knights has donate $6.25 million to anti-marriage equality initiatives. Most of the money went directly to fund ballot measures aimed at banning gay marriage in 12 states, according to a new report released last week by Equally Blessed, a coalition of pro-LGBT Catholic groups, which includes Call to Action, Dignity/USA, Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry.

The report is based on public Internal Revenue Service forms and campaign filings. Because the Knights have not yet filed I.R.S. forms for 2011 and 2012, the 37-page Equally Blessed report may well be under counting total contributions.

This year alone, for instance, the Knights contributed $250,000 in Washington State and another $250,000 in Maryland, as well as $134,000 in Minnesota and $1,135 in Maine — all to fight same-sex marriage. Voters in those four states face gay-marriage-related ballot measures on Election Day.

Funds to pro-hate organizations like NOM

Besides direct funding of such state-level anti-gay initiatives, the Knights, between 2006 and 2010, gave $9.6 million to organizations intending to “build a conservative and political culture,” according the Equally Blessed report, entitled “The Strong Arm of the Bishops:  The Knights of Columbus and Anti-Marriage Equality Funding.

Those organizations include its own Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family ($6.1 million), the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty ($1.5 million), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage ($1.1 million).

The Knights also contributed $1.9 million to the National Organization for Marriage.

DignityUSA chimes in

During a conference call last week, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the advocacy organization DignityUSA, based in Medford, said the Knights’ work “is being done under cover, using the [organization’s] good name and reputation and all the good work they do for the community.” She said, too, that many members of the fraternal organization would find its foray into politics “objectionable and inappropriate.”

“It’s vitally important that Catholics know that this huge amount of money is being spent to deprive people of civil rights. It is also essential that they understand that this spending hurts people. It hurts LGBT people, many of whom are Catholic, and it destabilizes their families,” Duddy-Burke said in a follow up telephone interview and e-mail correspondence, when asked what Equally Blessed intended with its report.

“We hope the awareness the Knights are aggressively seeking to marginalize LGBT people, will compel more Catholics to speak out for justice, and to let the Knights and other church leaders know that they object to what’s been done. Our church should be standing up for the poor and marginalized, not investing millions of dollars on reinforcing discrimination,” explained Duddy-Burke, whose father and grand father belonged to the organization.

Anti-gay activism

On the same day that Equally Blessed released its study, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which funded half of the Catholic coalitions groups’ efforts, issued its own findings. In Minnesota, for instance, HRC found, church hierarchy and the Knights of Columbus have funded more than 50 percent of the effort — spending more than $608,000 — to ban same-sex marriage through a voter-approved constitutional amendment. That figure includes the Knights contribution, as well as thousands of dollars from small parishes all over the country.

“This is a pattern,” said Boston-based Charles Martel, referring to the Knights’ five years of anti-gay activism and funding. “Is this the way members of the Knights want their money to be used?” added Martel, who is president of Catholics for Marriage Equality, an advocacy group active in Maine.

Three years ago, the Catholic Church, including the Portland diocese’s Bishop Richard J. Malone, played an integral role in passing a ballot measure, which rolled back same-sex marriage rights state lawmakers and the governor signed into law.

But this year, “The church made a decision not to be part of the Protect Marriage Maine PAC and limited its involvement to a pastoral letter and a series of meetings with the Catholic community in parish halls and Knights of Columbus halls — informational activities as opposed to the very public political activity the did in 2009,” said David Farmer, a spokesperson for Mainers United for Marriage, which backs same-sex marriage.

Catholics for Marriage Equality

For its part, Catholics for Marriage Equality and other pro-LGBT Catholic groups are holding informational gatherings to garner support among the faithful for legal gay wedlock.

Better yet, two recent polls (late September) show public support for Question 1, which asks voters to approve same-sex civil marriage. A Public Policy Polling survey shows 52 percent of likely voters support the ballot measure, with 44 percent opposed and four percent undecided. Another survey, Maine People’s Resource Center, showed similar results, with 53 percent supporting Question 1, with 43 percent opposed and four percent undecided.

In other good news, Mainers United has raised $3.4 million, with Protect Marriage Maine bringing more than $400,000, as of the most recent reporting period at the end of September. But said Farmer, the opposition has $1 million in reserve of TV [advertising] time.

Undercover work shocks even some members

Meanwhile, how do some rank-and-file Knights view their beloved organization’s funding of discrimination?  Eighty-eight year old Edmund Burg of Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, said he felt “a sense of betrayal and disappointment with this organization that has done a great deal of good and now has turned on me.”  Burg joined the Knights 65 years ago and is the father of three children, including a gay son.

“I feel the same way about the bishops and all the hierarchy,” he added over the telephone, “with maybe the exception of a few bishops.”

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, some parishioners have walked out of services as pastors read letters against marriage equality from Archbishop John C. Nienstedt.

True enough, “The Catholic Church hierarchy has positioned itself as the leading religious organization funding discrimination against LGBT people,” said HRC president Chad Griffin in a statement. “Perhaps most disturbing is the number of local parishes redirecting the hard-earned dollars of its members in the name of discrimination.”

And yet the Catholic fraternal organization, with headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut, does not see it that way. “The Knights of Columbus supports Catholic Social Teaching and the bishops of the Catholic Church, and some resources have long been dedicated to promoting that teaching on moral issues,” according to a press statement.

That line left Casey Lopata of Rochester, New York-based Fortunate Families scratching his head. “What and where does ‘Catholic Social Teaching’ say anything to support opposition to LGBT discrimination and marriage equality?” he asked rhetorically.

For its part, the Knights are not disputing Equally Blessed or HRC’s accounting. “This report mentions $6.2 million donated by the Knights over the past seven years, during which time we also donated more than $1 billion to charitable causes, with more than $225 million of that coming from our Supreme Office,” the press release explained.

But Duddy-Burke would have none of it. “How much is appropriate to spend on discrimination? she asked, also rhetorically, at the same time calling the Knights statement “disingenuous.”

A national Catholic group has also voiced its concerns. “At a time when so many Americans are suffering, it saddens me that the Knights of Columbus have dedicated a large portion of their charitable donations to fund a far-right political agenda,” said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United.

Consequences for LGBT Catholics

“The Knights of Columbus’ work against civil same-sex marriage laws has the unfortunate effect of pushing younger generations of Catholics out of the church. Younger Catholics don’t want our faith known for its involvement in divisive culture wars, we want our faith known for serving the poor and marginalized,” he added.

Founded in 2004, Catholics United is non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting the message of justice and the common good found at the heart of the Catholic Social Tradition.

Sure enough, there is a Catholic disconnect here. Views of the Catholic laity stand in contrast to the Knights’ financing of anti-gay marriage activism. Fifty-nine percent of American Catholics support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll and Public Religion Research Institute poll, both released in March.

©  Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.