New RFI Research Assistant Fights for Religious Liberty in Kansas

September 30, 2022

RFI is pleased to announce Vincent Schiffiano as a new Research Assistant for RFI’s North America Action Team. Schiffiano—who is currently pursuing an M.A. in Human Rights at The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology and graduated from Benedictine College in May 2022 with degrees in Philosophy and Political Science—already has experience fighting for religious freedom “on the ground.” In September 2020, he helped lead a campus-wide effort at Benedictine against a county-issued COVID measure that would have imposed severe religious liberty restrictions, which National Catholic Register chronicled at the time.

Read Schiffiano’s first-hand account:

On September 2, 2020, Benedictine College—a small liberal arts school in Atchison, Kansas—was handed an executive order by the Atchison County Commission to quarantine all 2,000 students in their dorm rooms. I was a junior at the time, and I remember the atmosphere well. Everyone was afraid. Would we have to spend our fall semester locked away? Would we be able to attend Mass? Would our grades start to falter? It was even worse for the freshmen, away from home for the first time with many unknowns ahead of them.

That year, the basement in my campus house had become a sort of meeting place for students who, inspired by our education, aimed to transform the culture. When the conflict with the county commission began in late August, a few other students and I began strategizing. At first, I was hesitant to act. I had a packed summer working on pro-life political campaigns, and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I needed a break. The night before the order came down, I spoke with my dad on the phone, and we both agreed that I ought to plan on staying out of any conflicts over the pandemic. As the saying goes, “The best way to make God laugh is to show him your plans.”

Within minutes of hanging up with my dad, Steve Minnis, the President of Benedictine College, called me. President Minnis, an inspiring leader who had significantly shaped the character of the college, had become a real mentor of mine. As soon as I answered the phone, he said in his typical bombastic midwestern voice, “Alright Vince, you ready to fight for your rights?” He proceeded to explain the order that was about to be handed down, and any inhibitions of mine about taking action were gone. Now was the time to fight 

I assembled a group of competent students. My two main comrades, sophomore Jack Kuckelman and freshman Chris Ullrich, would go on to distinguish themselves in their own ways. We worked with President Minnis and Mike Kuckelman, an attorney and a board member of the college, to develop our plan of attack. We focused on the term “quarantine,” arguing that quarantine is for sick people, not healthy ones. Since every student had to test negative before returning to campus, each and every student was technically under house arrest and therefore entitled to a habeas corpus lawsuit. But each one of these lawsuits would have to be paid for by the county. In addition to making our case, we planned to march on the county courthouse with bands, flags, signs, and a statue of Our Lady. We were not about to go down quietly, and were going to make sure that the news heard all about it.

But the first line of attack would be spiritual. The essence of this fight was not over mere autonomy to do whatever we wanted. Rather, we believed that our community and scholarship were important and that they needed to be protected. And most importantly, we believed that our faith must be protected. For us, the most troubling of all the restrictions was that we were not allowed to attend Mass. Benedictine is a community of faith and scholarship, and our faith is at the heart of it all. As soon as you set foot on campus, it is evident that Benedictine is a place that is permeated by faith. We were, of course, willing to protect the vulnerable members of our community, wearing masks and quarantining if need be, but what the county was asking us to do was disproportionate to what was needed, and detrimental to the exercise of our faith.

So on September 4th, the day before the order was to come into effect, we organized a rosary on the main campus quad. The statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus towered over the quad as 700 of my classmates, faculty, staff, priests, brothers, and friends of the college, gathered to pray. I couldn’t believe my eyes. As I looked around at the army of my friends and classmates, I turned to my friend Gabe and he simply said, “Is this really happening?” Halfway through the rosary, I saw a tear falling down President Minnis’ cheek as we witnessed the power of our faith.

The next day it was announced that the county had rescinded the order and we would slowly return to normal. I walked through campus as the news spread with periodic shouts of joy from the student body. I sat down on a bench, played some old North Carolina bluegrass on my headphones, and thought about what we had just done. Not only had we fought for our religious freedom, but more importantly we had fought with our religious freedom. Faith is not some private activity to be shoved away under a bushel basket on Sundays. Faith is a living reality that is to be brought into the public square. It is not merely a “live and let live” or “all religions are equal” sort of platitude, but rather the fostering of truth’s flourishing. And on September 4, 2020, that is exactly what happened.