Petersburg Knights crusade for religious freedom

Knights of Columbus 694 were allowed to have their annual Memorial Day Mass after filing a federal lawsuit and temporary restraining order. (Photo/Knights of Columbus 694)

The Knights of Columbus Council 694 in Petersburg did not expect to find themselves at the center of local and national headlines. Grand Knight Joseph LeClerc said he and his brother Knights wanted to avoid the spotlight; they simply wanted to honor service members who have died for our country.

Their Memorial Day Mass at Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg had been a decades-long tradition for their council – until Memorial Day 2023.

LeClerc said the National Park Service (NPS), which manages the cemetery, denied their permit application for the annual Mass. The explanation given was a new federal policy that prohibits religious services on cemetery grounds, categorizing them as demonstrations.

“As a Knight, I will stand firm to uphold our religious freedoms and our Catholic faith,” LeClerc said. “They put us in the category with demonstrators. We don’t want to be squashed like that.”

When Memorial Day rolled around this year, Council 694’s permit was denied again – for the same reason – and the Knights were pushing harder to bring back the Mass in the cemetery.

“Memorial Day is so we can honor our fallen soldiers and memorialize them at Mass – and pray for their souls,” LeClerc said.

Father Gino Rossi, pastor of St. Joseph, Petersburg, celebrates Mass at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, Petersburg, May 27, 2024. (Photo/Knights of Columbus 694)

The Knights retained the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending religious liberty. The group worked with international law firm McGuireWoods. Roger Byron, a senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, said they have helped the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council on other matters of religious freedom for many years.

The push quickly gained steam. On May 13, First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the NPS, explaining that the permit denial violated basic First Amendment principles and went against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

“We hoped there had been a misunderstanding or oversight,” Byron said, but four days later, the NPS confirmed that their policy would, indeed, prohibit the Mass from taking place.

On May 20, First Liberty Institute filed a federal lawsuit in Virginia, and then the following day, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, asking that the Knights be allowed to hold the Memorial Day Mass in the cemetery.

A court hearing on the restraining order was set for May 23, just days before Memorial Day. Just before the court hearing, the NPS decided to allow the Memorial Day Mass, saying their policy would no longer restrict the Knights. First Liberty Institute then dropped the federal lawsuit.

Byron called this case very significant because “application of the policy in that way makes the Knights of Columbus and other religious groups into second-class citizens … and pushes them to the proverbial ‘back of the bus.’ That’s unlawful discrimination that the First Amendment is there to prevent.”

The morning of Memorial Day brought heavy rain and lightning in Petersburg. LeClerc said their prayers were answered – the rain stopped long enough for dozens of people to gather under a large tent as Father Gino Rossi, pastor of St. Joseph, Petersburg, celebrated Mass against a backdrop of white headstones.

LeClerc, an Air Force veteran, said Mass was all the more powerful, “being able to see the gravesites of the fallen soldiers” in the background.

“Those are my fallen brothers, too,” LeClerc said. “I was really honored to be able to [have the Mass] for them and their families. It’s not just a Knights of Columbus thing.”

He explained that their Memorial Day Mass has been a longtime tradition – going on more than half a century – at the small cemetery, the burial place of thousands of American soldiers.

In his homily, Father Rossi called it “a terrible offense and even a slap in the face” to the fallen service members – that “our government would dishonor their sacrifice by attempting to disallow our honoring of it.”

Father Rossi commended the Knights for “not allowing us to be pushed over.”

“Some adversaries to religious freedom might look at the Knights of Columbus and think, ‘Ah, these old, nice men aren’t going to cause any problems,’” the pastor continued.

“To them, I would respond – don’t poke the bear. We might seem nice – and we are – but we are ferocious in our commitment,” Father Rossi said. “We only get more fierce when pushed.”

“No one fights harder than Catholics,” he said.


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