President Trump’s pick as U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom faced tough questioning Wednesday over his anti-LGBT record during which he refused to say laws in foreign countries criminalizing LGBT status were always unjustified.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, whom Trump nominated in July to become U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, was non-committal on opposition to these foreign laws, which in some cases penalize homosexuality with death, under questioning from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Seeking to connect the issue of anti-LGBT discrimination to religious freedom, Kaine asked Brownback if he’s aware that countries have laws punishing homosexuality with imprisonment or death.
When Brownback replied, “I believe that’s correct,” Kaine pointed out the justification for these draconian anti-gay laws is religious reasons.
In response, Brownback said the day before his confirmation hearing, he had a “lengthy conversation” with Randy Berry, who continues to serve during the Trump administration as U.S. envoy for the State Department for international LGBT human rights issues, and how he worked with the Obama administration’s U.S. ambassador for religious freedom David Saperstein.
“We had a good conversation about how these two offices work together,” Brownback said. “I don’t see doing anything any different than what they worked together.”
Kaine started to reply, “That wasn’t really my question,” but Brownback responded, “But that really is the point.”
Seeking to get back on topic, Kaine asked the nominee if there’s any situation in which religious freedom could be used to justify laws imprisoning or executing people for being LGBT, but Brownback didn’t directly answer.
“I agree with what Randy Berry did around the world on that topic,” Brownback said. “I’m not fully briefed on the various specifics of what he basically did and described to me yesterday and the work he did back and forth with ambassador Saperstein, I wouldn’t see changing.”
With his question unanswered, Kaine asked again if there’s any circumstance in which criminalizing homosexuality for religious reasons is justified, but Brownback again declined to directly answer.
“I don’t know what that would be and what circumstance, but I would continue the policies that had been done in the prior administration in work on these international issues,” he said.
Kaine wasn’t satisfied: “I really would expect an unequivocal answer on that, but my time is up.”
Brownback refused to say outright laws criminalizing homosexuality are always unjustified days after the Trump administration faced criticism for voting against a U.N. resolution condemning the death penalty for homosexuality. The Trump administration defended that action by saying the resolution was about the death penalty in general, not specific to gays, and previous administrations declined to support similar resolutions.
The choice of Brownback as ambassador for religious freedom overseas has inspired consternation among LGBT rights supporters since Trump announced his choice based on the Kansas governor’s anti-LGBT record, which was explored during the hearing.
Brownback also faced tough questions from Kaine about rescinding as governor an executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination in the state workforce.
Referencing Brownback’s decision in 2015 to reverse the order established by his Democratic predecessor Kathleen Sebelius, Kaine asked the nominee to defend his actions.
“That was an order that created a right by the executive branch that wasn’t available to other people and it wasn’t passed by the legislative branch,” Brownback replied. “I believe those sorts of issues should be passed a legislative branch.”
But Kaine wouldn’t have Brownback’s explanation the protections should be left the legislature, asking the nominee, “Isn’t that kind of the point to an executive order?”
“You issue an executive order on something that the legislature doesn’t pass,” Kaine added. “If it was clearly in statute, you wouldn’t need to issue an executive order.”
But Brownback said an executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination would be inappropriate because it was “a foundational issue that you were creating a right for state employees that wasn’t available to the rest of the people in the state.”
When Kaine replied “was it bad” to give state employees a course of action under anti-LGBT discrimination, Brownback insisted the state legislature should be responsible for those protections.
Kaine asked Brownback a series of questions on whether as Kansas governor he appoints Cabinet secretaries and agency heads, and the nominee more or less affirmed that was the case. When Kaine asked Brownback if he applies a high standard to state employees, Brownback replied “yes.”
Kaine’s follow up: Why then, as Kansas governor, could he also not protect LGBT state employees through executive order?
“If you’re hiring for honesty, if you’re hiring for competence, wouldn’t that be an appropriate thing that the governor as a chief of state personnel operation would want to know about leaders in state government,” Kaine said.
Brownback’s defense: “I think that would be a rational thing. I just don’t think it’s a right the executive branch should create without the legislative branch.”
Reversing the executive order isn’t the only anti-LGBT action Brownback took as governor. Last year, he signed into law a “religious freedom” bill allowing student groups at taxpayer-funded public universities in Kansas to deny membership to LGBT students.
As a member of Congress — first as U.S. House member, then as U.S. senator — Brownback built a significant anti-LGBT reputation. Among other things, Brownback championed a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.
Kaine recalled during his tenure as Virginia governor issuing an executive order against anti-gay discrimination in state employment, saying that was the first action he took as governor even though he faced resistance from then-Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell over the legislature not having acted on the issue.
“Can’t you see that the retraction of an executive order like this that had been in place for eight years sends a message that that is not a value, non-discrimination against folks on the grounds of sexual orientation, that’s not a value that you share?”
Brownback disagreed and insisted for the role at hand as ambassador for religious freedom, he wouldn’t engage in any kind of discrimination.
“I look forward to working with people, working with everybody regardless of their ideas or views on how we can advance the agenda of religious freedom,” Brownback said.
Also questioning Brownback on LGBT rights was Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who after raising the issue of Indonesian refugees in her state facing deportation asked Brownback if he’s willing to work with civil society groups working not just on religious freedom, but LGBT and women’s rights.
In response, Brownback insisted his focus will be religious freedom to maintain bipartisan support for that role.
“I will work with anybody that I can on the topic of religious freedom and not veer out of that lane because I think if you start to veer out of that lane, you get pulled to other topics that other people are charged with doing, you’re going to lose bipartisan support for the position, which is critical to have,” Brownback said.
Coming to Brownback’s defense was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was chairing the hearing and said his colleagues were asking him about topics other than religious freedom.
“If there is persecution on the basis of religion, or oppression on the basis of religion, or the denial of liberty on the basis of religion, your job would be to advocate for that freedom for them to practice in peace religion in peace,” Rubio said. “That is the scope of the job that you’d been nominated to, is that correct, not to litigation theological points or policy differences beyond the scope of that liberty?”
Brownback affirmed that view and repeated his response that bipartisan support for his role is important, adding a distraction into other issues would make the position “less effective if effective at all.”
David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of government affairs, said after the hearing his organization remains “deeply concerned” about Brownback’s nomination.
“Brownback’s long history of anti-LGBTQ actions in Congress and as governor was reflected in his refusal at his hearing today to unequivocally condemn the inhumane treatment, including execution, of people based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Stacy said. “While he expressed some support for the LGBTQ human rights work at the State Department, his other responses give us every reason to believe that Brownback will continue to use his own narrow view of ‘religious freedom’ as permission to discriminate against LGBTQ people.”