Catholic leaders and human rights activists are blasting Democrats for delaying the confirmation of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to a State Department post aimed at protecting the freedom of people around the world to practice the religion of their choice.
President Donald Trump nominated Brownback to become the U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom in late July, a post which is charged with promoting religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities from persecution as key objectives to U.S. foreign policy.
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The Senate Foreign Relations approved his nomination in late October, and his GOP supporters in Congress hoped it would sail through the Senate by unanimous consent. Brownback previously served in the House and Senate, where he was widely respected for his congenial nature, although he often clashed with Democrats over his strong anti-abortion stances and other socially conservative views.
Democrats cannot fully block Brownback's nomination because Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and executive appointments such as Brownback's only require 51 votes to overcome procedural hurdles for confirmation.
However, they can use Senate debate rules to drag the process out as a possible way to build more opposition to the nomination.
The strategy forces Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to run through precious floor time, which is in short supply as Congress prepares to leave on its Thanksgiving break.
Brownback's leadership is especially important right now, Catholic leaders and human rights activists argue. They say an urgent push is needed within the Trump administration to ensure a new State Department policy aimed at saving Christians, Yazidis, and other minority religious groups from extinction in Iraq is carried out.
"Senate Democrats are purposefully delaying confirmation of Gov. Sam Brownback," Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal adviser to the Catholic Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for public policies that reflect Catholic values, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Petty politicking has no place where fundamental human rights are at stake. It is time for the Senate to do its job and confirm the eminently qualified Brownback."
Picciotti-Bayer has cited Brownback's "experience, stature and personal commitment" to the promotion of religious freedom. She points to his work during his time in the Senate on behalf of Christians in the Sudan, including his sponsorship of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act. That law imposed sanctions against those responsible for the genocide and war crimes and supported the peace efforts.
Human rights activists also are pushing for action on the nomination.
"From Sudan to North Korea, Sam Brownback was a stalwart on behalf of religious freedom and human rights while a senator," said Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. "He unstintingly supported my own and many others' efforts to help the persecuted religious believers and exploited women and children in the forgotten corners of the world."
"As religious genocide and cleansing reach epic proportions in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, it is unconscionable that Senate Democrats are blocking his confirmation," added Shea, who spent years as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2012.
Vice President Mike Pence recently announced that President Trump is directing the State Department and USAID to bypass the United Nations in order to more effectively channel U.S. assistance funds to Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities in Iraq.
However, USAID and State are trying to water down the directive. U.S. officials recently have said that the administration is exploring a new initiative to better ensure that funds are getting to vulnerable communities, but indicated that the pilot project would not begin until January.
Democrats in recent weeks have taken issue with Brownback's record as Kansas governor on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.) pressed Brownback to explain why he signed an executive order in 2015 that rescinded a protection for LGBT state workers.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, one of Brownback's gubernatorial predecessors, used her executive power to institute the protection, which is aimed at preventing state workers from being fired, harassed or discriminated against.
Brownback said he believed the governor did not have the power to put such policies in place and that only the state legislature could act to do so.
Kaine also asked whether Brownback thought protecting religious freedom meant protecting acts of discrimination against LGBT people.
He asked if there were any instances in which "criminalizing, imprisoning or executing people based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable because somebody asserts they are religiously motivated in doing so?"
Brownback responded that he didn't know how there could be such a circumstance, and pledged to "continue the policies of the previous administration in working on these issues."
The Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, subsequently came out against Brownback's nomination and sent a letter to all of the members of the Foreign Relations committee urging them to vote no on his confirmation.
HRC called Brownback's responses "deeply worrying" and "particularly concerning" because "LGBTQ people often face persecution in the same countries where religious minorities face persecution."