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Trump Taps Religious ‘Bully’ Sam Brownback for State Department Spot

Teddy Wilson

“His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens.”

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who has long embodied the conservative movement’s quest to combine culture war politics with economic austerity policy, will now have an international stage to promote those ideas.

The White House on Wednesday announced that President Donald Trump will nominate Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

“Religious Freedom is the first freedom. The choice of what you do with your own soul,” Brownback tweeted after the announcement. “I am honored to serve such an important cause.”

Micah Kubic, ACLU of Kansas executive director, criticized the nomination of Brownback, citing the governor’s long record of opposition to LGBTQ rights and his “wrong-headed insistence” on using religious beliefs to justify discrimination with religious imposition laws

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“Throughout his tumultuous tenure, Gov. Brownback worked tirelessly to erode the protections that the First Amendment affords for the separation of church and state,” Kubic said. “More troubling, Gov. Brownback has been one of the nation’s leading proponents of the notion that people, businesses, and even governments should be able to discriminate against others because of their own religious beliefs.”

The ambassador heads the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which monitors religious persecution and discrimination and recommends policies and programs to promote religious freedom. 

The office produces an annual report on religious freedom in every foreign country, identifying “countries of particular concern” where religious freedom is under threat.

Brownback told World magazine he intends to coordinate government efforts to advance international religious freedom. “I don’t think we’ve figured out yet the right way to pursue it internationally,” Brownback said. “Religious freedom is such a hallmark of a forward-thinking nation.”

Brownback was first elected to the U.S. House in 1994 as part of the so-called Republican Revolution and then was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996. Brownback was elected as governor of Kansas in 2010 on the coattails of the massive Republican takeover fueled by the rise of the Tea Party movement.

As governor, Brownback has implemented some of the most conservative policies in the country. Those extreme austerity measures have resulted in a budget crisis and the repudiation of a legislature dominated by fellow Republicans. 

Brownback, in the final year of his second term as governor, will leave office as one of the nation’s least popular governors.

State Rep. Melissa Rooker (R-Fairway) told the New York Times that Brownback “leaves behind a legacy of failed leadership,” and Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) added that Brownback “left a state in carnage and destruction.”

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, told the Kansas City Star that Brownback is “unsuited” to serve as ambassador of religious freedom. “His use of religion is little different than that of a bully wielding a club,” Witt said. “His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens.”

Brownback signed a bill in 2013 that states the government may not “substantially burden a person’s civil right to exercise of religion.” In 2015, Brownback signed an executive order rescinding discrimination protections for state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, Brownback issued an executive order that prohibited the state from taking legal action against clergy members or religious organizations that denied services to people in “accordance with a religious belief.”

Brownback in 2016 signed legislation that prohibits the state’s universities from taking action against religious organizations on campuses that restrict membership to students that adhere to the group’s religious beliefs or “comply with the association’s sincere religious standards of conduct.”

Ward, the Kansas State House Democratic leader, told the Times that Brownback did not “embraced diversity” during his time as governor. “Hopefully, this job that he’ll step into, he’ll realize that Americans are of all kinds of faith,” Ward said.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) will likely step in as governor if Brownback’s nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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