The Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882, is the largest Catholic fraternity almost 2 million members worldwide. It was created in-part to provide affordable life insurance for Catholics, but the organization also focuses on policy issues, including a “pro-life” stance and a steadfast opposition to marriage equality. The Knights of Columbus are part of the “establishment,” with members including House Speaker John Boehner, former Governor Jeb Bush and Justice Samuel Alito. President John F. Kennedy was also a member. While this organization’s concerns are much broader than abortion and equal marriage, its financial heft campaigning on these topics is substantial.
The Knights of Columbus, in their own name, have chosen to celebrate an individual who committed many atrocities against the Native Americans he encountered. The lobbying of the Knights was instrumental in ensuring national recognition of Columbus Day, a holiday that is controversial today. The Knights are also largely responsible for the introduction of the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, the removal of which has repeatedly been attempted and still continues to fail.
Their most transparent campaign is their attempts to deny reproductive rights, both through aiding widely denounced “crisis pregnancy centers” which feed women false or misleading information about their options, or funding other anti-choice groups. This is not a new phenomenon, a 1989 report documented possible misuse of bingo proceeds in supporting anti-choice groups in Wisconsin. A 1992 New York Times article documents a plan to construct a “tomb of the unborn child” in every diocese in the country. Knights of Columbus groups at all levels are campaigning for legislation to limit access to abortion, and they are very open about their campaigning, with a “culture of life” umbrella constituting one of their three stated “Public Policy Issues.”
The “culture of life” campaign has been instrumental in the “ultrasound initiative”, which provides ultrasounds that allow expecting mothers to “recognize the miracle of life”. The Knights have also been strong supporters of Marches for Life, particularly in the U.S., Canada, and the Philippines, and they even go as far as to argue that support for abortion restrictions is bi-partisan. Despite their claim to be bi-partisan, the group has strongly supported some of President’s Trump’s policies, including his May 2017 executive order for “religious liberty.”
In contrast to their prominent anti-abortion movement, the Knights’ campaign against equal marriage is given reduced publicity, to the point that a report researching their funding of anti-LGBTQ efforts had to examine their IRS filings, as opposed to a convenient profile outlined on their website. The report, by Equally Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic organization supporting LGBTQ people, highlights their funding against marriage equality in 12 states, including roughly $1.9 million to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM: PRA Profile here). During the campaign over Proposition 8 in California, the Knights of Columbus donated around $1 million to the Yes on 8 campaign.
In 2017, the Knights anti-LGBTQ efforts were highlighted by a report published by The National Catholic Reporter, which discussed how the Knights have donated to The Becket Fund For Religious Liberty, an organization working to legalize LGBTQ discrimination. The Knights of Columbus have also donated to The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, where a bishop last year “described LGBT human rights as a “demonic gender ideology.”” The Knights also supported medical ethics workshops where speakers advocated for “curing” those who identify as gay or transgender through counseling.
The Knights of Columbus have responded to claims that they are anti-LGBTQ by suggesting that their spending against equal marriage is only a small proportion of their total spending. While they spent $1 billion during the timeframe the report examined, “only” $15.8 million went towards anti-LGBTQ efforts. From disaster relief, to helping fund the Special Olympics, the Knights of Columbus are in many cases a charitable force for good. Nevertheless, their massive and continued efforts against the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals far overcasts any goodwill they may have hoped to earn.