The US Senate is currently considering the nomination of Kansas Governor (and former Senator) Sam Brownback to be the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Senator Brownback’s history—both in Kansas and in Washington—make him uniquely ill-suited for this role. Amongst other problematic positions, Senator Brownback has long been a zealous opponent of women’s and LGBTQ rights. Of particular concern, he has often sought to cloak his efforts to block access to health and undermine human rights in a veneer of religious liberty, justifying crackdowns on individual choice through a twisted understanding of religious freedom.
Senator Brownback is the latest in a string of conservative ideologues who oppose women’s rights that President Donald Trump has nominated to serve in senior posts. From recently-ousted Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, to US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, to new USAID Administrator Mark Green, a track-record of restricting women’s access to health care has seemingly become a key credential to joining President Trump’s Administration.
Senator Brownback fits this mold. As Governor of Kansas, he supported some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, including legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide drugs they believe might cause an abortion; a budget defunding Planned Parenthood; and a law that states that life begins “at fertilization” and requires doctors to tell women that abortion causes breast cancer (a proven lie). In 2015, Senator Brownback escalated his religious agenda by signing legislation making Kansas the first state in the country to ban a common second trimester abortion procedure.
The scope of his discriminatory beliefs extends beyond abortion. In a quest to undermine LGBTQ rights, both as a Senator and as Governor, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and opposes marriage equality, which he has referred to as a “vast social experiment” that would “take the sacredness out of marriage” and “drive the marriage rates down.” In keeping with a deeply conservative outlook, he has opposed transgender bathroom access, as well as the right of LGBTQ people to serve in the military.
Most disturbingly, Senator Brownback has often used arguments of religious liberty to justify intolerance and hate. In 2016, he signed a law in Kansas allowing religious groups on college campuses—including publicly funded colleges—to discriminate with regard to membership. A year previously, he signed an executive order as governor that prohibited the Kansas state government from taking action against religious groups that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Senator Brownback is a dangerous choice for any leadership role, but he is a particularly troubling nomination for a post responsible for upholding religious freedom around the world. What Senator Brownback has done in Kansas—using narrow religious interpretations to justify large scale denials of human rights—is increasingly utilized in many countries around the world where women, LGBTQ persons, and other groups see their health and rights jeopardized in the name of religion. Through his record at both the State and Federal level, Senator Brownback has demonstrated that he is more interested in advancing a conservative ideology than promoting human rights.
Senator Brownback’s nomination is being considered at a time when refusals to provide abortion services based on moral or religious objections are a rising global phenomenon; seventy countries allow providers to exempt themselves from delivering services by invoking their rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. While international human rights standards uphold an individual’s right to conscience, they do not recognize the right to use conscientious objection to deny access to health care. Health professionals have a moral and ethical duty to put the lives and health of their patients first. In this context, it is alarming that Senator Brownback’s record counters this notion of respect for health as a human right and not a moral battleground.
IWHC strongly opposes the nomination of Senator Brownback to be the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who should serve as a defender of religious minorities and not to advance the agenda of the US religious right. The Senate should reject this appointment.
Photo: Gage Skidmore