Biden Administration Reverses Ban on Catholic Mass After Discrimination Outcry

By: Alyssa Miller | Last updated: Jun 06, 2024

For over 60 years, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity, have held a Memorial Day mass at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Virginia.

However, this year they face a significant obstacle as the National Park Service (NPS) has labeled the religious service as a ‘demonstration,’ leading to its prohibition at the Petersburg site.

Allegations of Religious Discrimination

The Knights of Columbus have initiated legal action against the White House, claiming the decision constitutes religious discrimination. 

Members of the Knights of Columbus in ceremonial regalia sitting in a row

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This action was triggered when the NPS applied a policy that previously did not affect their annual mass, leading to the current ban and subsequent legal challenge from the group.


Legal Standpoint on First Amendment

“The policy and the decision blocking the Knights of Columbus from continuing their long-standing religious tradition is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” John Moran, the attorney for the Knights of Columbus, stated.

Stone plaque of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in a public park

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This statement illustrates the legal basis for their lawsuit.

Immediate Legal Response

In reaction to the ban, the attorney representing the Knights of Columbus has appealed to the court for immediate intervention.

Official Memorial Day ceremony at a war memorial with large American flags and military personnel

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“We urge the court to grant our restraining order and allow the Knights to hold their service this Memorial Day,” said John Moran, highlighting the urgency of their request in a press release.

Historical and Global Presence

The Knights of Columbus was founded in New Haven, Connecticut in 1882 and has grown into a global welfare organization with more than two million members worldwide. 

Group of men standing by a river holding a Knights of Columbus flag, commemorating an event

Source: Knights of Columbus/Facebook

Their activities, extending beyond community services, include this long-standing Memorial Day mass that has now come under scrutiny.

Interpretation of NPS Regulations

Historically, the NPS rules have classified religious services and vigils as ‘demonstrations.’ An exemption existed for official commemorative events like Memorial Day, allowing such services at national cemeteries. 

Outdoor Memorial Day service with an American flag at half-staff in a cemetery with mountain backdrop

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The controversy arose from a policy change in 2022, which tightened these exemptions.


Official Stance on Cemetery Activities

Alexa Viets, superintendent of the Petersburg National Battlefield, emphasized the reserved nature of national cemeteries, stating, “National Cemeteries are established as national shrines in tribute to those who have died in service to our country.”

People placing wreaths on graves in a cemetery during a daytime event, with various individuals, including families, actively participating

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This statement reflects the NPS’ viewpoint on maintaining the sanctity of these sites.


Restrictions on Cemetery Use

Viets further explained the restrictions on activities within the cemetery.

Candle-lit vigil at night in a cemetery with numerous small lights illuminating the gravestones in curved rows

Source: Wikimedia Commons

They specified that only those with direct military connections or historic significance are allowed, emphasizing the limited scope for approved activities.


A Historical Irony

This legal struggle comes with a historical twist, as former President John F. Kennedy, a notable member of the Knights of Columbus, contrasts sharply with the current Catholic president who now faces this lawsuit. 

Close-up portrait of former President John F. Kennedy smiling in an indoor setting

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This situation highlights a unique historical connection and current conflict without implying causation or correlation.


Optimism for a Resolution

Roger Byron of the First Liberty Institute was optimistic about resolving the situation without further conflict.

Members of the Knights of Columbus saluting in a line, wearing colorful feathered hats and ceremonial sashes during a public event

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He said, “There must have been some kind of oversight or miscommunication, and that the park service is simply going to approve the permit.”


Warning of Further Implications

Byron said, “If they don’t, we’ll know that something else has happened — something that bears the unmistakable marks of religious discrimination.” 

Stained glass window featuring the Knights of Columbus emblem with a knight's helmet, crossed sword and anchor, and the letters K of C.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This statement indicates potential deeper issues at play if the situation does not resolve favorably.


Criticism of NPS' Approach

“The National Park Service is way out of line,” Byron said.

logo of the National Park Service featuring a mountain, forest, and a buffalo, set against a stylized arrowhead background

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He articulates a critical view of how the NPS has handled the situation, reflecting the tensions between maintaining public order and respecting religious traditions at national sites.


Limiting the First Amendment at National Parks

According to the motion, NPS officials stated that they would permit the Knights to celebrate Mass in a grassy strip near the parking lot, designated as a “First Amendment area.”

A National Park Service ranger wearing a badge on their uniform

Source: Kurt Moses/Flickr

Officials barred the Knights from holding their service inside the cemetery for the first time in over 64 years.


A Long-Standing Tradition

The Knights have held a Memorial Day Mass at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Virginia since 1960. This is the second time that the long-standing tradition has faced interference from the NPS.

Knights of Columbus holding flags during a ceremony

Source: Picryl

Last year, the religious group was denied a permit at the cemetery where they hold their “demonstration” each year.


NPS’ Rules on Demonstrations 

Since 1986, religious services and vigils have been classified as “demonstrations” at national parks (via NPS). These non-permitted services and vigils are prohibited in national cemeteries.

This is a photograph of three Yosemite National Park Rangers at a US Citizenship ceremony at Glacier Point in 2011.

Source: Cthegoat/Wikimedia Commons

The rules state that conducting a special event or demonstration, whether spontaneous or organized, is prohibited except for official commemorative events conducted for Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and other dates designated by the superintendent as having special historic and commemorative significance to a particular national cemetery. This restriction does not apply to committal services.


A New Interpretation of Old Regulations

Attorneys for the Knights argued that the NPS’s decision was based on a “new interpretation of old regulations.” The regulations forbid demonstrations—defined as a public expression of views—that are “reasonably likely to attract a crowd or onlookers.”

The Knights of Columbus standing in front of Jesus Christ on a cross in a church

Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

For 36 years, the organization had been able to celebrate Mass under those regulations, the motion says.


A Fight to Keep Tradition Alive

Attorneys representing the Knights said the group had been conducting a mass or prayer service at the cemetery every Memorial Day for at least 60 years until a recent policy change.

A black and gold gavel on top of a US flag.

Source: Bermix Studio/Unsplash

“This is the kind of unlawful discrimination and censorship RFRA and the First Amendment were enacted to prevent,” Byron said. “Hopefully, the court will grant the Knights the relief they need to keep this honorable tradition alive.”


Misapplying Regulations

“By prohibiting the Knights from exercising their religious convictions and expressing their patriotism by praying for and honoring the fallen through a Catholic mass held inside the cemetery, NPS is misapplying its own regulations, unlawfully infringing on the Knights’ First Amendment rights and violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” the motion said.

Two members of the Knights of Columbus standing in uniform during a ceremony

Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

The Knights and the motion argue that other states have allowed similar demonstrations to be held in national cemeteries.


NPS Reverses Its Decision

The day after the Knights claimed that the Biden administration violated the First Amendment and filed a temporary restraining order against the NPS, the NPS approved the permit.

A brown wooden gavel hitting a wooden sound block.

Source: Wesley Tingey/Unsplash

The Knights’ attorney celebrated the reversal, expressing gratitude to the NPS for allowing this tradition to continue.


NPS Granted the Permit to the Knights

Judge John A. Gibney scheduled a hearing on the motion and the case for 1:30 p.m. the next day in his courtroom in Richmond.

Headstones at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, 21 July 2010;

Source: Number 10/Flickr

However, the court abruptly dismissed the case after the NPS agreed to issue the requested permit, allowing the Knights to hold a service in the national cemetery.


Reversing a “Blatant Act of Unlawful Discrimination”

Jason Miyares, the state’s Republican Attorney General, filed an amicus brief in the Knights’ case and blamed President Joe Biden’s administration for what he called a “blatant act of unlawful discrimination.”

Close-up photograph of a judge’s gavel

Source: Freepik

“The First Amendment very clearly allows religious and non-religious groups to hold these types of gatherings on government grounds,” Miyares said in a statement following the conclusion of the case. “It’s shameful and un-American that they were denied in the first place.”


Exercising Religious Beliefs

First Liberty, who also supported the Knights in the filing, thanked Miyares and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin for their assistance in this legal win.

A digital illustration of the world’s many religions with the symbols and practitioners worshiping against a sunset sky

Source: @WhatsappStatusStation/YouTube

“The Knights are thrilled that they will be able to exercise their religious beliefs and keep this honorable tradition alive. We appreciate the tremendous support of Governor Youngkin and Attorney General Miyares in this case,” Senior Counsel Roger Byron announced in a press release.


NPS Wants to Charge You

This is the first time the NPS has come under fire for modifying rules that govern free speech demonstrations and special events in the US.

A close-up of American dollar bills.

Source: engin akyurt/Unsplash

In 2018, 14 proposals were under consideration, one of which was a fee for demonstrations of 25 or more people around the National Mall in Washington, D.C.


The NPS and Future “Demonstrations” 

The NPS oversees more than 1,000 acres of parkland and public spaces in D.C., including the National Mall, the White House, and various historic locations and landmarks.

A workers union protest pictured in the middle of a city street

Source: Freepik

If individuals or organizations want to hold events at any of these spaces, they must apply for and receive a federal permit. This is, of course, contingent on their adherence to the many rules and regulations proposed by the NPS, some of which are open to interpretation.