July 28, 2018 at 12:24 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Anti-LGBTI groups participate in State Dept. religious freedom conference

Tony Perkins, gay news, Washington Blade

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is among those who participated in a religious freedom conference the State Department held in D.C. this week. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A number of anti-LGBTI organizations participated in a three-day religious freedom conference the State Department held this week in D.C.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Thursday tweeted a picture of Family Research Council President Tony Perkins “welcoming attendees” of a workshop that focused on U.S. government grants.

A conference schedule the Washington Blade obtained indicates the workshop took place at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s offices in Northwest D.C. The picture on Twitter shows Perkins — who is a member of the commission — speaking at a podium in front of a screen with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and its Office of Global Programs’ names projected onto it.

The conference schedule notes the Liberty Counsel and Faith and Action co-sponsored a breakfast with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback that took place at Faith and Action’s offices in Northeast D.C. on Tuesday.

The Heritage Foundation and Concerned Women for America co-sponsored a panel titled, “Protecting International Religious Freedom from the Politicization of Human Rights” that took place at the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday and again at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday.

The event’s description in the conference schedule includes a reference to “The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom,” a book written by Dr. Aaron Rhodes, and how it “identifies a dangerous trend in the international human rights movement. Increasingly, the natural rights of individuals, like religious freedom, are being conflated with manufactured rights which are the social and economic policy priorities of particular groups and governments.”

“Natural rights protect the fairness of the political process by ensuring that individuals are free to think, speak, and act according to their convictions, including their religious beliefs,” reads the description. “However, when governments and social groups can transform their economic and social policy goals into ‘human rights,’ this undercuts the moral legitimacy and persuasive power of natural rights like religious freedom.”

“The panelists will discuss how robust protection of religious freedom will ultimately lead to economic prosperity and why natural rights are best protected when they are protected for all, not for members of particular identity groups,” it adds.

U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Callista Gingrich was among the panelists who took part in a panel titled “The Fight for International Religious Freedom: Perspectives from the Vatican” the Religious Freedom Institute and Catholic University of America’s Center for Religious Liberty held on Tuesday. Alliance Defending Freedom International and the James Dobson Family Institute on Thursday co-sponsored a panel on parental rights that took place at the Museum of the Bible.

“Issues surrounding the fundamental human right of parents to provide care, custody, and control of their children includes questions of religious and philosophical convictions,” reads the panel description in the conference schedule. “To what extent and at what point should a state intervene or even override parents’ decisions or objections? Join religious liberty and parental rights experts at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., to discuss.”

Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Brownback — who have each faced criticism from advocates over their anti-LGBTI rights records — all spoke at the conference.

Pompeo on Wednesday hosted a reception at the State Department with “foreign government delegations, select civil society and religious community participants, U.S. government officials and members of Congress.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on the same day hosted an invitation-only reception at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“In America, we prove every day that religious freedom buttresses all other rights,” said Pence in his remarks that he delivered on Thursday. “It provides a foundation on which a society can thrive.”

“Here, in America, believers of all backgrounds live side-by-side, adding their unique voices to the chorus of our nation, proving that religious freedom means not only the right to practice one faith; it lays a foundation for boundless opportunity, prosperity, security and peace,” he added.

Participant criticizes ‘presence of well-known anti-LGBTI’ groups

The conference took place less than two months after the Trump administration applauded the U.S. Supreme Court for ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court last month upheld the Trump administration’s policy that effectively bans the citizens of five Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Pope Francis is among those who have criticized the separation of migrant children from their parents under the White House’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel as hate groups based on their anti-LGBTI positions and rhetoric. These groups have also supported anti-LGBTI efforts overseas.

The Blade has previously reported Liberty Counsel Chair Mat Staver has attended events in Jamaica that were organized by groups opposed to efforts to decriminalize consensual same-sex relations in the country. The Alliance Defending Freedom, along with current and former staffers, have supported campaigns against the repeal of anti-sodomy laws in Belize and India.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has an openly lesbian sister, in 2016 reiterated his opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples during an Alliance Defending Freedom event in New York.

Harry Samuels, a policy advisor for the American Jewish World Service, a D.C.-based organization that funds LGBTI advocacy groups around the world, is among those who attended the conference. He told the Blade on Friday in a statement the “presence of well-known anti-LGBTI and anti-choice groups at the ministerial illustrates the cynical nature of the Trump administration’s promotion of ‘religious liberty,’”

“The administration intentionally conflates honorable efforts to protect religious minorities from violence with using ‘religious conscience’ to legitimize discrimination against LGBTI people and deny sexual and reproductive health services to women and girls around the world,” added Samuels.

State Department officials have yet to provide the Blade with information that specifically identifies the organizations and/or individuals from them who participated in the conference. The State Department earlier this week did, however, release a list of the heads of the delegations from the more than 80 countries that attended.

They include Assistant Egyptian Foreign Minister for Human Rights Ahmed Gamal El Din, Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray. Ingibjorg Solrum Gisladottir, director of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, also attended.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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