Key Questions for Brownback at Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Hearing

By , Erika Asgeirsson
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will testify on Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on his nomination to be the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The Ambassador-at-Large is the nation’s lead diplomat responsible for promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy.

The Ambassador-at-Large leads the Office for International Religious Freedom (IRF) and advocates for those facing religious persecution and discrimination across the globe. A centerpiece of this work is the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which documents the status of religious freedom in every country, foreign government policies that violate the right to religious belief and practice, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom.

Given recent re-structuring within the State Department, the IRF Office will take over the functions of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, who is responsible for driving the secretary’s engagement with Muslim communities.

As many senior positions at the State Department remain vacant, including the under secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights to whom the ambassador-at-large will report, movement on this position is welcome. However, Brownback’s nomination has not been without concern due to his track record on religious freedom and tolerance issues. As a senator, Brownback was a key supporter of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which established the IRF Office, but in his time as governor of Kansas, his record on the rights of LGBT people, misuse of “religious freedom” to authorize discrimination against LGBT individuals, and support of “anti-sharia” laws raise some questions.

After the 2015 Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States, Governor Brownback issued an executive order claiming to protect religious freedom, but in reality it gave license to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The order prohibits the Kansas state government from taking action against clergy, religious leaders, or religious organizations for denying services to same-sex couples based on religious belief. Religious organizations included under the executive order can be those that provide social services—such as hospitals, homeless shelters, and adoption agencies.

Religious freedom is about protecting a pluralistic society and an individual’s right to believe something different. Using it to condone discrimination or to oppress an already marginalized group goes is antithetical to its intent. With this in mind, we hope members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seek clarification on these important questions:

On the protection of the LGBT community

In many parts of the world we continue to see widespread violence and discrimination against the LGBT community. Unfortunately, some of the attacks against this population come from actors—including government officials—who cite religion as the basis for their abusive actions. At the same time, we see religious leaders who are positively engaged in pushing back against such mistreatment and who are exhibiting leadership in support of LGBT people. Those of us who are concerned about this ongoing human rights crisis are concerned about what you will do in response. Your own record shows that you view “religious freedom” as bestowing a license to discriminate against LGBT individuals, and we know that even mild forms of discrimination help set the stage for more serious rights abuses.

  • What can you say to assure us that you see LGBT people as a community that is worthy of protection, and how would you use your position to help foster positive movement forward?
    On engaging with Muslim communities

In 2012, as the Governor of Kansas, you supported so-called “anti-sharia” legislation prohibiting state courts and agencies from using foreign law. These laws are rooted in false and hateful conspiracy theories that sharia law will overtake U.S. law. They advance the divisive, distorted, and fear-based narrative that Islam is incompatible with American values, which serves to demonize Muslims.

  • What message do you think your support of “anti-sharia” legislation sends to Muslim communities around the world? What impact do you think your prior support of this legislation will have on your ability to engage these communities?
  • Given that this position is responsible for promoting freedom and respect for all religions as a fundamental human right, how will you build trust, respect, and acceptance across all faiths?

Published on October 3, 2017


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