Knights of Columbus: Standing on the Wrong Side of History, for a Change

In 1924, the Knights of Columbus commissioned and published a groundbreaking book by civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois that promoted racial equality and documented the varied contributions of African Americans. According to the Knights, the organization was ahead of its time because "the ideal 'that all men are created equal' was more a philosophical statement than a practical reality for millions..."

As further revealed in its January 2013 press release entitled "Created Equal," the Catholic fraternal benefit organization published additional works promoting tolerance of blacks, Jews and Germans and engaged in a wide range of activities over the ensuing decades fighting injustice and promoting the cause of equality.

No civil rights movement, of course, is alike, but the fight for equality is a universal one with common bonds shared among all Americans. As President Obama elegantly articulated in his second inaugural address, "We, the People, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls [women's suffrage], and Selma [racial equality], and Stonewall [gay rights]."

Indeed, the truths pronounced by the Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago, and confirmed by the Fourteenth Amendment 150 years ago, are no less true - or important - today, whether for women, racial minorities, or gays and lesbians.

That the Knights arrived relatively early to the fight for racial equality is commendable, but it runs in stark contrast to its recent below-the-radar efforts to fight against equality for millions of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are denied certain rights - like marriage or employment protections - that people were denied on account of their race decades ago.

Surprisingly, the Knights has not only actively battled against gay and lesbian civil rights, but has over the past several years become one of the nation's largest funders of discrimination against gays and lesbians. In fact, between 2004 and 2011, the Knights contributed more than $14 million to groups that oppose same-sex relationships and other gay civil rights. Many of these organizations have made inflammatory statements regarding same-sex relationships, same-sex adoption, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

In 2008, the Knights was the single-largest funder of Proposition 8, which eliminated recognition of same-sex marriages in California and has been struck down by two federal courts as violating the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians. In 2012, the Knights and its local councils contributed nearly $1 million to unsuccessfully oppose same-sex relationships in state ballot measures in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

The animus towards gay and lesbians expressed by these contributions runs counter to the more than 130 years of honorable charitable work engaged in by the Knights. Founded in 1882, the fraternal organization has doled out millions of dollars around the country and world, including providing wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs for survivors of the Haiti earthquake, contributing to Gulf States hurricane relief and providing support for the Special Olympics. The Knights supports families through its primary business, life insurance, which fulfills the organization's primary mission of "protect[ing] families from financial ruin caused by death of the breadwinner."

Unfortunately, the Knights' good work is sullied by its efforts to discriminate against our gay and lesbian friends and family members. The freedom of religion does not equate to the right to discriminate in a civil society. The Knights' significant funding of anti-gay activities damages its long-standing mission of compassion and charity.

Every day, gay and lesbian citizens suffer because they do not receive the financial and legal protections that their heterosexual brethren enjoy. The death of a breadwinner in a gay or lesbian household can be devastating, in no small part because of the Knights' active efforts to prevent state recognition of gay and lesbian families.

The Knights' anti-gay activities may also may well come at a cost to the organization as it moves further outside the Catholic mainstream. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 62 percent of Catholics support marriage equality, an even higher rate than Americans as a whole, while a Pew report noted that only 2 percent of Catholics consider gay issues to be the Church's biggest problem today. And parishioners are increasingly becoming uncomfortable when they learn of the Knights' support of discrimination. Some, interviewed last fall by Minnesota's Star Tribune, were "crushed to learn the group is at the forefront of the anti-gay marriage effort and that some of their contributions might have gone to the cause."

In 1970, according to the Knights' press release, the Archbishop of Cincinnati expressed pride that the Knights "never subscribed to the evil of racism" and that it had taken a stand for racial equality "decades before it was so popular to jump on the [civil rights] bandwagon." It's obviously too late for the Knights to be ahead of the gay rights curve, but there's always time for the organization to live up to its historic ideals and start embracing civil rights for all. Or at least choose not to stand in the way of them.