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You really have to feel sorry for Kansas state employees. In 2015 Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded an executive order that had granted them legal protection based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Never mind that the governor reiterated overarching civil rights protections for race, religion, gender, age, or country of national origin. Or that President Barack Obama already had provided legal precedence for special protection with an executive order barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity at the federal level. Or that unemployment in Kansas generally fluctuates between 3 and 4 percent—suggesting, should all else fail, good jobs on the worst of days aren’t hard to find.
The supposed hard plight Brownback forced on Kansas state employees became the basis for a Democratic shutout last month to confirm Brownback as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a post unrelated to his views on LGBT causes, views he’s entitled to anyway. A 49-49 tie vote on Jan. 24 forced Vice President Mike Pence to make an unscheduled trip to Capitol Hill, only the second time in U.S. history a vice president was forced to break a tie over a confirmation.
Brownback told me in an interview that week he hadn’t seen it coming. “This should be a nonpartisan issue. When it blew up and became straight party lines, I was surprised,” he said.
‘There is a lot to do and an administration that wants to do it.’—Sam Brownback
That’s understandable, given that he worked for 15 years across the aisles as a U.S. senator himself. The Kansas lawmaker with support from Democrats (including first lady Hillary Clinton) led passage of the first major law combating international sex trafficking in 2000. He worked with Democrats to pass the law creating the position he is about to assume covering international religious freedom. For the ambassadorship, he’s had support from his predecessor, Obama-appointed Ambassador David Saperstein, and human rights activist Katrina Lantos Swett, both Democrats.
Further, he has the weight of urgency. In Myanmar 700,000 Muslims have been forced to flee military oppression. In post-ISIS Iraq, thousands of Yazidis and Christians are still missing, plus questions about U.S. aid still loom. These are life-and-death issues—not state benefits issues—and Brownback told me those situations will be his top priorities.
Overall, both the State Department and the watchdog group Open Doors reported serious declines for religious freedom worldwide in 2017. Open Doors documented more than 2,200 separate cases of sexual harassment, rape, or forced marriage of Christian women—six per day. On the day of the Brownback vote, I learned of an Iraqi Christian captured by ISIS militants, sold eight times, and raped repeatedly. Her rescuers have provided her safe haven in Syria. That’s right, the war-zone, terror-plagued Syria. You don’t need Pew Research to tell you religious freedom is under fire or the Freedom House to say democracy is in crisis, as national security and religious freedom issues are merging.
But for Senate Democrats, all that is nothing compared with Brownback going against LGBT groups. For that, Human Rights Campaign sent a letter to every senator protesting his nomination. At his confirmation hearing last year, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., ambushed Brownback with domestic LGBT-directed questions, even though he had acknowledged the Kansan “was suited” for the ambassador’s role. Brownback told me he tried to get a private meeting with Kaine but could not. He said he met several times with Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who didn’t raise the LGBT issues. Cardin was the only Democrat to meet with Brownback, and the two served together on the Helsinki Commission. But in the end Cardin, too, voted against him.
After the vote, LGBT activists continued to rant. A Daily Beast column warned against Brownback “weaponizing the State Department against Muslims, women, LGBT people, and human rights activists.”
Some at the State Department told me they are worried about the partisan divide on religious freedom, a policy area that’s brought Republicans and Democrats together. But Brownback believes moving forward and getting to work will be the best way to respond to his critics. “There is a lot to do and an administration that wants to do it,” he said.