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Is State Department's 'Natural Law' Effort Code for Homophobia?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

The department's plan to establish a commission to look at human rights through a "natural law" lens has activists concerned.

The State Department is planning to establish an advisory committee looking at human rights through the lens of "natural law" -- a theory often used to argue against LGBTQ equality.

The new body, to be called the Commission on Unalienable Rights, "will provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters," says a notice published Thursday in the Federal Register. "The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights."

Some human rights activists "privately said they worry that talk of the 'nation's founding principles' and 'natural law' are coded signals of plans to focus less on protecting women and LGBT people," Politico reports.

Conservative judges and academics have often contended that same-sex relationships are a violation of natural law. Although the term has been defined in many ways, some describe it as a belief that all law is or should be based on unchanging moral principles -- and among these are that sex should be reserved for married heterosexual couples and that gender roles derive from nature.

"Today natural law theory offers the most common intellectual defense for differential treatment of gays and lesbians," according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had a long anti-LGBTQ record as a member of Congress from Kansas, offered only generalities about the planned commission when speaking to reporters Thursday, Politico reports. The group will address "how do we connect up what it is we're trying to achieve throughout the world, and how do we make sure that we have a solid definition of human rights upon which to tell all our diplomats around the world," he said.

Pompeo has had a mixed record since becoming secretary of State last year -- issuing a supportive statement for Pride Month, for instance, but failing to acknowledge this year's International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. During his tenure, the State Department has at least spoken out against Chechnya's state-sponsored antigay violence in Chechnya and Brunei's enactment of a law (now suspended) providing for the death penalty for gay sex.

Some former State Department workers questioned why the new commission was needed, as the department already has a human rights bureau. "I don't think this is the advisory committee for expanding rights," U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a Democrat who was assistant secretary of State for human rights when Barack Obama was president, told Politico.

Ty Cobb, director of the Human Rights Campaign's global arm, expressed skepticism about the commission in a statement to the Washington Blade. "We would welcome a commission focused on expanding the rights of all individuals, including LGBTQ people, but the Trump administration has clearly demonstrated an intent to restrict the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities," he said. "We sincerely doubt this is being done in good faith to protect the human rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity."

An official with Human Rights First, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for the rights of all, including LGBTQ people, also got in a criticism of the U.S. human rights record under Donald Trump. "Many in the human rights community will welcome an opportunity to advise the Trump administration on where its policies contradict America's founding principles. There will be much to discuss," Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy, told Politico.

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