Wednesday was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day for LGBT Americans and those who believe we deserve basic respect and civil rights. After the president’s hastily tweeted ban on transgender Americans serving openly in the military, the Justice Department’s unusual interjection in a federal employment lawsuit to proclaim, contrary to growing precedent, that existing civil rights laws do not protect LGBT people, Trump announced his intent to nominate notorious anti-LGBT Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
As NPR rightly noted (in its opening line, no less), Brownback is “one of the least popular governors in the country,” but he’s been working to elevate his profile as a conservative Catholic culture warrior for more than a decade. The Ambassador-at-Large position is considered a senior advisor to the administration, while the Office of International Religious Freedom states that its mission is to “monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.”
But given Brownback’s history of using “religious freedom” as a sword to discriminate against LGBT people, his nomination offers the strongest evidence yet that, when the Trump administration talks about “religious freedom,” it actually means “Christian supremacy.” Though Brownback an equal-opportunity excluder: the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which Newsweek identified as the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties group, said Brownback should be “disqualified” from the position due to his history of “rushing to sign anti-Islam legislation designed to vilify Muslims.”
Brownback’s nomination is also the latest sign that Trump is willing to hire even economic “losers” if it appeals to his base, which has been grumbling lately about the president’s attacks on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
If confirmed, Brownback would be the first religious freedom Ambassador-at-Large who did not attend seminary or a pursue a similar denominational education. He’d be the first Catholic to hold the position, but as New York Magazine explains, that doesn’t mean he’d have any particular sensitivity for members of faith traditions that have been historically marginalized. Instead, it’s much more likely to mean he will continue the Christian supremacist agenda he’s been pushing since he entered public office. New York‘s Ed Kilgore explains:
[Brownback] was a member of the shadowy conservative Christian power-elite group the Fellowship; a disciple of meta-culture-warrior Chuck Colson; and a former evangelical turned Catholic by way of the controversial conservative group Opus Dei. Unsurprisingly, Brownback was dubbed “God’s Senator” in a rather frightening profile by Jeff Sharlet that appeared in 2006. In one prototypical action, in 2004, Brownback traveled to Alabama to be present for the unveiling of a blatantly theocratic Constitution Restoration Act, designed to remove church-state conflicts from the jurisdiction of the federal courts.
For context, the position to which Brownback has been nominated has existed since 1998; if confirmed by the Senate, Brownback would be the fifth Ambassador-at-Large leading the office within the State Department. He would succeed Rabbi David Saperstein, who was nominated to the post by President Obama, and who was the first Jewish (and non-Christian) person to hold the position. Saperstein filled a vacancy left by Suzan Johnson Cook, the first woman and African-American to hold that job, and a pastor in the American Baptist Church USA.
Those who haven’t been subjected to Brownback’s regressive tax policies (which have nearly bankrupted his home state) or his right-wing political agenda might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Brownback, a proud Catholic, has a long and illustrious history of using the power of his office to impose conservative Christian morality on constituents. Unsurprisingly, he is staunchly opposed to abortion, and has signed a host of laws restricting access to any form of pregnancy termination. In 2015, he signed the nation’s first ban on a relatively common (not to mention safe) second-trimester procedure known as dilation and evacuation, and earlier this year signaled his hope that Congress would adopt a similar ban nationwide.
When it comes to LGBT rights, Brownback distinguished himself early as a fierce opponent to any measure that conferred on LGBT people equal dignity under the law. He pointedly refused to allow Kansas to embrace marriage equality, resisting orders from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals when it found, in 2014, that same-sex couples in that circuit had a Constitutional right to marry. He decried the “liberal judges” who authored that decision, and instructed state employees to refuse requests from newly wed same-sex couples seeking to update last names on driver’s licenses and other documentation. As a result, Kansas was the last state in the 10th Circuit to allow its residents to marry a person of the same sex.
After losing that battle, Brownback focused his efforts on excluding LGBT people from as many parts of public life as possible, leaning heavily on a lopsided definition of “religious freedom.” Just one month after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark pro-marriage-equality decision in Obergefell, Brownback signed an unnecessary law aimed at “protecting” clergy members, faith-based organizations, and even agencies that contracted with the state but claimed a religious affiliation, from “being forced to participate in activities that violate their sincerely and deeply held beliefs,” according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. That law, which made no distinction between private agencies and those that serve the public and receive taxpayer funds, was a precursor to the targeted bills authored in other states declaring, for instance, that child welfare agencies contracting with the state can refuse to place children with prospective parents who don’t ascribe to the agency’s particular faith doctrine.
In 2016, he signed a law that allowed student groups at public colleges and universities to engage in discrimination without penalty — as long as the discrimination was rooted in “sincerely held religious beliefs.” When signing the bill, he was surrounded by members of the Kansas Catholic Conference and the anti-LGBT Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. Video of the signing ceremony, tellingly, includes zero non-Christians.
Of course, none of that was unexpected, given Brownback’s voting record during his 14-year tenure in the U.S. Senate. Brownback opposed hate crimes legislation, claiming in 2007 that efforts to prosecute violent bias-based crimes against LGBT people were actually aimed at “not allowing people to speak their beliefs about homosexuality.” He co-sponsored a failed attempted to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban marriage equality, explicitly defining marriage as “the union of one man and one woman.” He voted against several bills that aimed to offer financial and regulatory relief to women and minorities, including those who owned small businesses.
During Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s 2006 confirmation hearing Brownback’s opening statement applauded the conservative judge for his reverence toward “expressions of faith in the public square,” claiming Alito had “shown great concern for constitutional traditions and text, appropriate respect for Supreme Court precedents, and for religious, gender, and other minorities who are facing the power of the state.” During questioning, Brownback agreed with Alito that both men would “rather have a robust public square than a naked public square;” and that there was room for public displays of religious iconography on public or government property.
None of that history provides any indication that Brownback has an interest in protecting religious liberty as the bedrock principle it was intended to be, either at home or abroad. Instead, it’s an unavoidable signal to Trump’s right-wing, white evangelical Christian base that he will continue to privilege their delusional claims of “persecution” in dealing with far-flung countries that don’t kowtow to conservative Christian doctrine.