On the very same day Donald Trump banned transgender people from the military and his Department of Justice argued in court that it’s legal to fire gays and lesbians, the president nominated Gov. Sam Brownback as a global ambassador for religious freedom.
Brownback has demonstrated a disturbing interpretation of that buzzword, “religious freedom,” while serving as governor of Kansas — a job he now leaves to become the ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom.
In 2016, Brownback legalized discrimination in state universities by signing the Campus Religious Freedom Bill. Previously, student groups were required to follow their schools’ antidiscrimination policies, which often protected LGBT people. Under the new law, Brownback said religious student groups could “establish religious beliefs as qualification for membership.” Activists said that effectively undermined university policies and invited discrimination against LGBT people who Christians call sinful.
In response, California earlier this year banned state employees from traveling to Kansas.
Brownback in 2015 had already rolled back protections for LGBT state employees that had been implemented by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2007 via an executive order. Brownback just removed sexual orientation and gender identity from the antidiscrimination policy with his own order.
Kansas, under Brownback’s direction, moved much more slowly than other states to recognize marriages by same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruled in 2015. Later that year, Brownback effectively legalized discrimination against same-sex couples at homeless shelters and adoption agencies. The American Civil Liberties Union said Brownback’s executive order on religious freedom meant that homeless shelters could refuse to house a same-sex couple with a child, or a foster care agency could refuse to place a child with a same-sex couple. Brownback said the order “protects Kansas clergy and religious organizations from being forced to participate in activities that violate their sincerely and deeply held beliefs.”
Brownback first became governor in 2011 and won reelection, not ever shying away from his anti-LGBT beliefs. He spoke at a rally hosted by the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as an anti-LGBT “hate group.”
Brownback’s belief that homosexuality is immoral is rooted in his Catholic faith and was well recorded while he served in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2011. During a short-lived run for president in 2008, Brownback had said his socially conservative bona fides would distinguish him from the rest of the Republican primary field.
Brownback was reportedly the favorite of right-wing groups to get the religious freedom ambassadorship in the Trump administration. The role has existed since 1998, though it’s never been particularly high-profile. The State Department website says the role is intended to encourage freedom of religion and conscience worldwide. It monitors infringements on that freedom and issues an annual report.
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. -SDB
— Sam Brownback (@govsambrownback) July 27, 2017
Equality Kansas today called on the Senate to deny confirmation to Brownback, citing his record of trampling LGBT rights in the name of “religious freedom.”
“His use of religion is little different than that of a bully wielding a club,” said the group in a statement. “His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens. He has caused enough damage here in Kansas. We do not wish him upon the world.”