Sam Brownback Is an Appalling Choice for Religious Freedom Ambassador

Sam Brownback

Last Wednesday evening, as the nation reeled from his shameful Twitter attack on transgender service members, President Donald Trump took his assault on equality one step further: He announced his nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. The magnitude of the announcement fell largely under the nation’s radar. The exception was here in  Brownback’s home state of Kansas, where his constituents have experienced firsthand the serious implications of such a nomination.    

The American Civil Liberties Union takes no position — either in support or opposition — on presidential nominations of any kind, including this one. However, as someone who has had a front row seat for the war on equality that Brownback has tirelessly waged in Kansas throughout his entire political career, I feel compelled to shine a light on the destructive policies he has championed and likely plans to propagate on an international scale from his new platform.  

Gov. Brownback proudly considers himself an expert on religious liberty issues. After his nomination was announced, he tweeted, “Religious Freedom is the first freedom. The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause.”

The problem? The governor has consistently and unapologetically misinterpreted the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. His religious freedom policies have not been about protecting an individual’s right to decide when, where, how, and with whom to worship, as intended by the Constitution. Instead, they have been about giving people the ability to pick and choose whether they will respect the fundamental human rights of their fellow citizens, based on their own particular religious views. That approach is not only constitutionally and legally suspect, it also rejects our shared values of equality, freedom, and justice.

The discrimination that Gov. Brownback tolerates by cloaking it in the language of religious liberty discriminates against many groups, but LGBT Kansans have been the most consistently and systematically targeted group. Throughout his tenure as the nation’s most extreme anti-equality governor,  Brownback has acted to strip LGBT Kansans of their rights and to protect — no, encourage — blatant discrimination against these individuals by businesses, universities, and government.

For years, Gov. Brownback and his administration fought to prevent same-sex marriage from being legally recognized in Kansas. Even after the ACLU of Kansas prevailed in litigation brought against the state to force it to recognize the freedom to marry, Brownback kept up his crusade against same-sex marriage. That does not distinguish him from many of the nation’s other governors. What does set him apart, though, is that he continued his opposition even after the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in June 2015. Gov. Brownback’s opposition was so extreme that a federal judge put the state on probation. Doubting that the state would treat same-sex couples fairly, a federal judge is monitoring every aspect of the state’s implementation of same-sex marriage for the next three years!   

In February 2015, Gov. Brownback, without any warning, rescinded an executive order that had been enacted eight years earlier to protect state employees from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. In one fell swoop, he cruelly and recklessly ripped the security and safety of LGBT Kansans out from under their feet and dragged the entire state a major step backward on our path to achieving true equality under law. Thanks to the governor, in Kansas an LGBT state employee could be married over the weekend but fired on Monday for displaying a wedding photo at work.

Brownback struck again just a few months later, issuing a “religious objection” executive order allowing taxpayer-funded social service organizations to deny services to LGBT citizens. The implications of the order are jarring: A homeless shelter that receives a state contract or grant, for example, could refuse family housing to a gay couple with a child, or a foster care agency could refuse to place a child with a family member in a same-sex relationship. The governor’s enthusiastic support of a law designed to deprive certain segments of the population of services vital to survival is evidence of his misguided belief that “religious liberty” means the freedom to treat other people as second-class citizens.

But the governor could not, of course, rest after his attacks on Kansan adults and families. He next targeted LGBT college students with his Campus Religious Freedom Bill, which became law in March 2016. Under the law, public colleges and universities in Kansas are required to recognize — and fund, with student fees and taxpayer dollars — religious student associations, even those that discriminate in their membership. The law essentially creates a new right to public funding for religious student groups, including those that discriminate against LGBT people, women, African-Americans, students with disabilities, or anyone else. So long as the student group’s discrimination is rooted in a religious belief, the law permits any form of discrimination at all and requires Kansas taxpayers to foot the bill!

Gov. Brownback’s record is clear. When he speaks about “religious freedom,” he is not using that phrase in the sense the Constitution intended. He does not mean the freedom to worship without the destructive intervention or interference of government. He does not actually mean “the choice of what you do with your own soul.” What he really means is that he believes you should have the right to discriminate against other people as long as there is a religious reason for doing so. What he really intends to do is to use the noble language of the Constitution, the deeply held value of religious freedom shared by Americans, and our strong conviction that government should never dictate what we think or believe in order to advance an extremist agenda that pits people against each other and devalues the basic human dignity of some Americans.

The irony of President Trump’s nomination of one of the country’s leading proponents of intolerance to champion the cause of religious freedom is stark and unmistakable. 

MICAH KUBIC is executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.

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