Most U.S. Catholics Back Marriage Equality, But Knights of Columbus Pour Millions into Opposition

Quick, what organization was founded to support justice for immigrants, boasts nearly two million (all-male) members, and loves a good parade? The Knights of Columbus still support immigrants’ rights, but those sober-faced men marching down Main Street in full parade regalia are also part of an organization that was the single largest donor in support of California’s Proposition 8. 

This venerable fraternal order has taken up the anti-equality baton in a big, flamboyant way.

The National Organization for Marriage provides organizational muscle to anti-equality initiatives and legislative campaigns. What gives them that muscle is money, and lots of it, from big donors. A new in-depth report released today by Equally Blessed, a coalition of pro-equality Catholic organizations, reveals that the Knights are among NOM’s biggest supporters.

The Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest Roman Catholic fraternal order, with an astonishing $16.9 billion in assets. Its financial power comes from a huge and profitable life insurance business it promotes through local councils and parishes. It funnels millions of dollars to the pope and bishops’ conferences as well as to more service-oriented charities. 

“The Strong Right Arm of the Bishops: The Knights of Columbus and Anti-Marriage Equality Funding,” documents $6.25 million in direct Knights funding to anti-marriage equality campaigns at the national level and in a dozen states since 2005—and another $9.6 million to organizations that are working “to build a conservative religious and political culture to oppose efforts for marriage equality.” According to the report, among the biggest recipients of Knights funding are NOM ($1.9 million) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ($1.2 million). The report does not include figures for 2011 because the Knights delayed filing its tax reporting for 2011 until after the November 2012 elections.

In 2006, the Knights distributed 10 million postcards through state and local councils for Catholics to send senators in support of a proposed anti-marriage-equality amendment to the US Constitution. In 2008 it gave $1.1 million to pass Proposition 8 in California. But you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of the millions in anti-gay spending on the organization’s website, which highlights contributions to groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics. Buried in the section on service is language about the fact that the family is under “heavy attack” and that the organization can help defend it, but there is no hint of the scope of anti-gay work the group is funding.

If a member of the Knights doesn’t live in a state where the group is actively fighting marriage equality, says Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Equally Blessed member group Dignity, they might not have any idea how much of money is being spent that way. Duddy-Burke says the work “is being done under cover, using the Knights’ good name and reputation and all the good work they do in the community.” According to the Equally Blessed report, “Of the nearly $155 million donated by the Knights of Columbus in 2010, $125 million was raised at the local level through pancake breakfasts, casino nights, carnivals, and the like.”

Duddy-Burke says most individual members of the Knights are focused on the kind of charitable work the organization is known for. She said local members have little influence over what happens at the national level and some feel disempowered by the leadership’s decision to spend millions on activities that many Knights would find “objectionable and inappropriate”—working to deny equality to members of their own families and parishes.

In 2008, the Knights imposed a $2-per-member assessment to fund its Culture of Life Fund—not an insignificant figure in a 1.8 million-member group. Duddy-Burke says that anti-marriage equality work used to be listed on the Knights’ webpage about the Culture of Life Fund, though now it only highlights abortion and “religious liberty” work.

The Equally Blessed report also notes that Supreme Knight Carol Anderson is a Republican political operative equally well connected to conservatives in the Vatican and in US political circles, including William Lori, Bishop of Baltimore and head of the bishops’ anti equality efforts who also serves as the Knights’ “Supreme Chaplain.” Other right-wing groups such as the Federalist Society, the Howard Center for Family, and Religion & Society (which sponsors the World Congress of Families) have been funded by the Knights, but among the largest recipients is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is aggressively supporting the bishops’ “religious liberty” campaign attacks on the Obama administration.

Also released today was a report by the Human Rights Campaign, noting that the Catholic Church and Knights of Columbus are together responsible for more than a quarter of the anti-equality spending in the four states in which marriage is on the ballot this fall. According to the report, the Catholic Church has funded more than 50 percent of the effort to write discrimination against LGBT people into the Minnesota constitution. In Maryland, cash donations from the Knights and NOM have provided more than 75 percent of the Maryland Marriage Alliance’s war chest. And in Washington, the Catholic Church, Knights, and NOM have provided more than 55 percent of the funding.

NOM, which loves to use alarmist rhetoric about rich gay funders, is itself heavily dependent on big donors. Earlier this month it announced that a donor had given the group $2 million to use as a 2-for-1 matching grant for its anti-marriage and anti-Obama campaigns.

How do progressive Catholics respond to the combined forces of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the money machines that are the Knights of Columbus and NOM? “What we have on our side is the belief of the majority of American Catholics,” says Dignity’s Duddy-Burke, noting that more than half of American Catholics support marriage equality. She says “It is not consistent with the gospel for any segment of the church to be using millions of dollars to hurt people.”