Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) on Sunday criticized White House deputy budget director nominee Russell Vought's expression of his religious beliefs, doubling down on his controversial questioning of Vought in a Senate committee hearing.
Sanders affirmed the Constitution's protection of religious liberty on CNN's "State of the Union" before he castigated Vought's religious expression.
The Vermont senator characterized Vought's Christian beliefs as a way to "essentially say ‘Islam is a second-class religion.'" The comment came days after Vought said on June 7 that "all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs."
Vought, President Donald Trump's nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Sanders clashed during the former's confirmation hearing earlier this month. The Vermont senator brought up a January 2016 post in which Vought called Islam a "deficient theology." Vought said the statement was not "Islamophobic," adding, "I'm a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith."
Sanders said Sunday that he refuses to back down from his criticism because it is "a time when we are dealing with Islamophobia in this country."
He justified his criticism by saying that Vought's expression of his beliefs came in support of Wheaton College's decision to fire a professor who contradicted the school's statement of faith.
"This all took place, by the way, in terms of his defending the firing of a professor at Wheaton College because she showed solidarity with Muslims who were being attacked through an anti-Muslim effort," Sanders said.
The professor he mentioned, Larycia Hawkins, said in a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims that they and Christians "worship the same God," for which her Christian college suspended her. She later resigned, and Wheaton came under fire for its handling of the situation.
Sanders has faced criticism for appearing to impose a religious test on Vought for office, which Article VI of the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids. Still, Sanders defended his actions by pointing the finger at Vought's defense of Wheaton.
"That seemed to me unacceptable, as a government official," Sanders said.
Article VI of the Constitution states in part that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Sanders squared his criticism of Vought's expression of faith with the Constitution by saying that he supports the right to private beliefs.
"In terms of his freedom of religion, he and every other American has the right to hold any point of view they want," Sanders said.