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Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard accuses fellow Democrats of ‘religious bigotry’ in questioning judicial nominee

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) greets supporters in Hono­lulu on Election Day last year.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) greets supporters in Hono­lulu on Election Day last year. (Marco Garcia/AP)

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a potential 2020 White House contender, is accusing some of her fellow Democrats of “religious bigotry” in their questioning of one of President Trump’s judicial nominees.

Gabbard’s claim, made in an op-ed in the Hill newspaper, drew a rebuke Wednesday from another Hawaii Democrat, Sen. Mazie Hirono.

In the op-ed, Gabbard did not name any names. But she argued that some lawmakers had gone too far in their questioning of Brian Buescher, whom Trump nominated in October to serve as a district judge.

“While I oppose the nomination of Brian Buescher to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers Buescher’s Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus,” Gabbard said in the op-ed.

Buescher was a Republican candidate for Nebraska attorney general in 2014.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November, and in written questions that he answered in early December, Buescher was asked about his public statements during his 2014 campaign, his position on issues such as abortion as well as his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal society.

The organization has in recent years taken steps into the political realm, funding anti-same-sex marriage initiatives in a number of states.

Among those questioning Buescher over his membership in the Knights of Columbus were Hirono and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). In response to one question, Buescher defended his membership in the organization, which he said “does not have the authority to take personal political positions on behalf of all of its approximately 2 million members.”

In recent weeks, the senators’ grilling of Buescher has become the topic of a number of pieces in conservative media, with some comparing it to California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s questioning of the religious beliefs of another Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, in 2017.

Gabbard in her Tuesday op-ed argued that if Buescher’s religion and membership in the Knights of Columbus were disqualifying, then President Kennedy and the late senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) “would have been ‘unqualified’ for the same reasons.”

“Whether we think of ourselves as Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikh, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, agnostics, or anything else, it is imperative that we stand united in our commitment to protect religious freedom and the right to worship or not worship, safely and without the fear of retribution,” Gabbard said.

Hirono’s office responded Wednesday that Gabbard was mischaracterizing her questioning of Buescher, and that the senator was voicing her concerns about the nominee’s past public statements rather than his religion.

“It is unfortunate that Congresswoman Gabbard based her misguided opinion on the far-right wing manipulation of these straightforward questions,” Hirono spokesman Will Dempster said in a statement.

He added that over the past two years, Hirono “has been attacked by right wing ideologues for her examination of Donald Trump’s ideologically-driven nominees to the courts.”

“Senator Hirono asks all judicial nominees — particularly those who have expressed very strong personal ideological views in conflict with Supreme Court precedent — if they can be fair,” Dempster said. “She asked Mr. Buescher, who has a clear record of anti-choice activism, whether he could separate his personal beliefs from decisions he would make if confirmed for a lifetime appointment on the federal bench.”

In a statement, Gabbard spokeswoman Lauren McIlvaine said Gabbard will “always fight for religious freedom and oppose religious bigotry — no matter where it comes from or to whom it’s directed.”

“Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard respects Senator Hirono,” McIlvaine said. She added that “no nominee for public service should be disqualified, either directly or indirectly because of their religion or religious affiliation.”