At Confirmation Hearing for Religious Freedom Ambassador, Brownback Defends Revoking LGBT Protections

by | October 4, 2017

By Jonathan Shorman

Gov. Sam Brownback defended his decision to rescind protections for gay and transgender state workers before a U.S. Senate panel considering his nomination as ambassador for international religious freedom.

Brownback faced skeptical questioning from Democrats and friendly questioning from Republicans during his confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

The hearing placed Brownback one step closer to confirmation by the full U.S. Senate. He will presumably resign as governor to take the position once that happens, but there is no set timeline.

Overall, Brownback emphasized that he would pursue freedom for religious minorities around the world.

"I will stand up and fight for those communities as I have in the past," Brownback said.

Sen. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, grilled Brownback over his 2015 repeal of an executive order that prohibited discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual and transgender state employees that was put in place under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Brownback, who left the order in place for first term before repealing early in his second term, said the executive order addressed issues that should be decided by the Legislature.

"That was an order that created a right by the executive branch that wasn't available to other people that wasn't passed by the legislative branch," Brownback said.

Kaine questioned Brownback over whether he would protect the rights of LGBT individuals. Kaine said that religion has at times been used to justify discrimination and mistreatment of gay and lesbian individuals.

Kaine asked if there was any circumstance under which criminalizing, imprisoning or executing somebody based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable because somebody asserts a religious motivation.

"I don't know what that would be in what circumstance but I would continue the policies that have been done in the prior administration and working on these international issues," Brownback replied.

Kaine wasn't satisfied.

"I really would expect an unequivocal answer on that," Kaine said.

Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas, said Brownback should finish out his term as governor and not be confirmed. Anyone who would "use religion as a weapon against their fellow citizens" has no business representing their fellow citizens, he said.

But Sen. Pat Roberts urged senators to vote to confirm Brownback.

"Sam Brownback's personal and professional commitment to religious freedom makes him an excellent choice to lead our nation's efforts to promote religious tolerance and to fight against religious prosecution and discrimination," Roberts said.

President Trump nominated Brownback to the ambassadorship in July after months of speculation over possible appointments.

Brownback as ambassador would be responsible for publishing an annual report on religious freedom in virtually every country in the world, along with a list of the countries that are the world's worst abusers. The position is based in Washington, D.C.

The position was created in 1998. Brownback said Congress had worked hard to keep the topic of religious freedom worldwide bipartisan.

"Because of that, it's had a strength I think some other issues tend not to have. I pledge to you to continue that bipartisan effort on it," Brownback said.

Frank Wolf, a religious freedom advocate and former Republican congressman, said Brownback would make an "oustanding" ambassador.

Kaine's questioning and apparent frustration with Brownback raises the possibility that he or other Democrats could oppose Brownback's confirmation. But it is highly unlikely Brownback's nomination would be derailed by Democratic opposition because Republicans hold a majority in the Senate.

If Brownback is confirmed to the job, he will take over the position as it is set to expand. The ambassadorship will absorb four other diplomatic offices, under a reorganization plan sent to Congress in August by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The office would gain more than a dozen staffers in addition to the staff of 25 it already has currently. Its $6 million budget would grow by about $1.7 million.

(c)2017 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)