Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) mocked Senate Democrats' religious tests for judicial nominees during a Wednesday committee hearing, asking the nominee and Knights of Columbus member Peter Phipps if he had ever been "involved in the organization of a fish fry."
Sasse's joke referred to the Knights's practice of throwing fish fries for Catholic churches on Fridays during Lent, a liturgical time of the year where Catholics typically abstain from meat. It is one of the many charitable actions in which the organization participates, including providing community service and charity drives for children. Phipps, like other judicial candidates before him, has faced scrutiny for his involvement in the organization from Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) and other Senate Democrats, who allege the organization is "extreme."
Sasse used his question time at the hearing to sarcastically fillet Phipps for his Knights membership.
"So it's much more the stuff of community service, love of neighbor, fish frys, and pool parties than some sort of Da Vinci Code stuff?" Sasse asked. "I just want to be clear that I understand this scary organization that you're a member of."
"That's exactly right," Phipps said. "It's a charitable organization, it's an organization that has social and recreational activities that many members of my family have really enjoyed and really benefited from."
Phipps explained the history and work of the Knights, and Sasse warned Senate Democrats to reconsider the "new tradition" of attempting to impose religious tests on members of religious organizations like the Knights of Columbus. "We should ask them about their oath of office to the Constitution, and whether or not they can do that free from bias," Sasse said.
One member of the Judiciary Committee, however, did not understand Sasse's joke. After the Nebraska Senator finished his questions, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) told Sasse that he "hates" to hear Sasse suggesting that there be a religious test on the Knights.
"What is Da Vinci? I don't understand it," he said. "And I'm a little bit annoyed as a member of the KofC."
"Yeah, well I feel like it would be great for you to huddle with some of your colleagues, because obviously I was asking the question sarcastically," Sasse replied.
Leahy asked Sasse to clarify what he had meant about religious tests for the Knights.
"On your side of the dais," Sasse said, "there are people asking questions about why you would—"
"About Da Vinci?" Leahy asked.
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"No, sir," Sasse said. "Obviously, the Knights of Columbus is a wonderful organization. That's my point."
"Okay, thank you for that," Leahy said.
Sasse explained further: "You've got people on your side of the aisle wondering if someone who's a member of the Knights of Columbus should be able to be a judge," he said. "I think it would be great for us off-camera to huddle, and you should ask some of your colleagues some of these questions, because obviously I think the Knights of Columbus is doing wonderful work. You've got people on your side who are implying that Knights of Columbus membership might be disqualifying for the bench."
Most prominent among these Senate Democrats is Harris, whose questions to Phipps included queries about if he had to "swear an oath" of allegiance to the Knights and if his membership required him to make ruling in keeping with the organization's view that "the right to life of every human being, from the moment of conception to natural death" must be protected. Phipps replied that if confirmed, he will "follow the law and not any personal views that I may have."
The Senate formally rebuked Harris and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) in January for attempting to impose a similar religious test on another judicial nominee and Knights member.