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When Congress passed its first major piece of legislation to curb international sex trafficking in 2000, then-Senator Sam Brownback steered the effort with wide bipartisan support. Liberal Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone joined the conservative Kansas Republican as a co-sponsor. First Lady Hillary Clinton was a vocal champion. The law passed Congress under unanimous consent, was signed by President Bill Clinton, and was renewed three times as Republicans and Democrats continued to cooperate on the issue, often with leadership from Brownback, who left the Senate in 2011 to run for governor of his home state.
Such bipartisanship on human rights issues is a thing of the past. That was made clear on Wednesday as Senate Democrats threatened to defeat confirmation of Brownback as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Brownback’s appointment passed, but only after a 49-49 vote summoned Vice President Mike Pence, just back from the Middle East, for an unscheduled trip to Capitol Hill. It was only the second time in U.S. history a vice president has had to break a tie for a presidential nominee. Further, the Kansas governor’s confirmation failed to receive one vote from Senate Democrats—a first in recent history for a former senator, particularly one with a record for achieving bipartisan wins. A decade ago, Brownback was the key Republican in securing Senate support for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I’m afraid it reflects a hardening of the lines between the political parties on an issue that truly should be a source of unity, not division. There should be no Republican or Democratic position on international religious freedom,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights. Lantos Swett, a Democrat, was named to head the commission by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
President Barack Obama’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, joined Lantos Swett in endorsing Brownback. Saperstein, who during his tenure reinvigorated the State Department’s International Religious Freedom office, called Brownback “a very strong appointment” last year and said he looked forward “to working with him in furthering the cause of religious freedom around the globe.”
But support from leading Democratic human rights voices wasn’t enough for Democratic lawmakers, pressured since last October by LGBT groups to oppose Brownback. Led by the Human Rights Campaign, those groups began lobbying senators soon after a confirmation hearing. Brownback’s “anti-LGBTQ record” and his record as governor—where he prohibited transgender state residents from changing their birth certificates, among other decisions opposed by the gay lobby—made him unsuitable for the international role, wrote HRC government affairs director David Stacy to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“He has consistently conflated ‘religious freedom’ with a license to discriminate,” Stacy said.
Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prevailed in placing a hold on a full Senate vote on the nomination, even after the Kansan cleared the committee. That forced President Donald Trump to resubmit Brownback’s nomination in 2018, which he did on Jan. 8, one day before a Senate deadline.
With the vote before the full Senate scheduled this week, religious freedom advocates expected a handful of Democrats to side with Republicans in favor of Brownback. That changed at noon on Jan. 24. With the vote only hours away, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, leader of the Democratic Caucus, issued a call to Democrats to vote “no” on the confirmation.
“I’m afraid it reflects a hardening of the lines between the political parties on an issue that truly should be a source of unity not division. There should be no Republican or Democratic position on International Religious Freedom.” —Democrat Katrina Lantos Swett
Republicans learned that 49 senators were lining up against Brownback, and they realized they might not have enough votes on their own side to win: Republican Sen. John McCain was in Arizona for cancer treatment, and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was in Switzerland attending the Davos Economic Forum. Unaware Corker would not be on hand for the vote, Republican staff members made frantic calls to find him, while religious freedom advocates began circulating emails to drum up support. The Knights of Columbus, which has spent more than $17 million in support of displaced Christians in Iraq, at one point expressed concern that even with Pence on hand, there might not be enough votes to confirm Brownback.
In the end there were, but the nail-biter will leave a lasting divide, many fear, highlighting the way in which LGBT groups have overruled other, more widespread human rights issues. Brownback’s office at the State Department has no mandate over domestic policy, yet Democrats were unapologetic for their votes, which would have left the office again vacant.
“America has always been about freedom, fairness and opportunity for all. That should be our message to the rest of the world but Sam Brownback won’t deliver it and advance the cause of #LGBTQ equality,” tweeted Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., shortly after the vote.
“I thought that he has not shown concern for human rights,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told WORLD a day later.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, complained that Brownback “couldn’t in committee answer basic questions about America’s position against the abuse of human rights violations against women, human rights violations against gays and lesbians.”
Asked how that might affect the U.S. role on international religious freedom and posture toward those persecuted for their religious beliefs, Booker said, “Because in the international realm there are so many human rights violations going on against LGBT folks.”
The Democrats’ emphasis comes at a time of escalating humanitarian crisis for many religious communities that are far removed from LGBT concerns. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in recent months with documented atrocities of military forces attacking and raping members of the religious minority and torching their villages. Two Reuters reporters have been arrested for attempting to investigate mass graves in Rohingya areas, and on the same day the Senate voted, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, resigned in frustration from a Myanmar advisory board over its handling of that crisis.
The years-long crisis for Christian and Yazidi victims of ISIS also requires current diplomacy and redress, as more than 150,000 Iraqi Christians and more than 500,000 Yazidis remain displaced in Iraq, while targeting killings of Christians in Syria are on the rise. The U.S. effort to aid rebuilding the predominantly Christian Nineveh Plain area of Iraq has stalled until this month, as Vice President Mike Pence stepped in to redirect UN funds to those rebuilding efforts, essentially performing the function of the religious freedom ambassador.
Both the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the watchdog group Open Doors in annual reports released this month cite increased levels of persecution worldwide. Open Doors documented in 2017 more than 2,200 separate cases of sexual harassment, rape, or forced marriage of Christian women—or six per day. Recent Pew Research findings indicate more than three-fourths of the world’s population lives in countries where religious restrictions are severe.
The 1998 legislation creating the high-level position now to be filled by Brownback passed with bipartisan support in Congress. During the law’s 2015 reauthorization, though, Democrats led by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin waged a battle to gut its key provisions, despite lobbying by 86 humanitarian groups that formed the International Religious Freedom Roundtable.
A State Department reorganization plan put forward last year by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prioritized retaining special envoys for LGBT issues and global women’s issues. At the same time, it would reduce or eliminate several offices with religious freedom oversight, and eliminate the department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia—all raising the significance for the ambassadorial position Brownback now takes up.
—with reporting by J.C. Derrick