While some conservative Christian groups have celebrated Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s appointment to a federal position that advocates for religious freedom, members of other religious and civil rights groups point to his gubernatorial record as reason that he should not serve in the role.
The White House’s announcement Wednesday that President Donald Trump had nominated Brownback to serve as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, drew praise from many members of conservative Christian groups. They hailed the nominaton in statements, and some said they thought it demonstrated the Trump administration’s commitment to advocating for religious liberty globally to name Brownback, who has a record of working on the issue.
Supporters pointed to Brownback’s U.S. Senate record of advocating for human rights issues and his travel to Darfur to call attention to systematic killing there. Brownback served in the Senate for 15 years and was elected governor for the first time in 2010. Members of civil rights groups and other religious-focused organizations, however, said Brownback’s gubernatorial record was one of advocating for Christian morals, but not freedom for religious minorities.
Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said he thought Brownback would bring experience and gravitas to the role and raise its profile. He said he thought the ambassadorship had not played a weighty enough role in foreign policy discussions. Congress also passed a bill last year aimed at strengthening the role the ambassador plays in foreign policy discussions.
“I think we have a real opportunity to integrate religious freedom and the protection of human rights into our foreign policy more broadly,” Weber said.
Weber said he thought other conservative Christians were happy with Trump’s decision to nominate Brownback.
Eric Teetsel, director of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, said he thought Brownback’s appointment demonstrated to many that the Trump administration is taking the issue of religious freedom seriously by nominating someone with a track record.
“This is a hugely important issue and one that has not received the attention it deserves, particularly when it comes to American foreign policy,” Teetsel said.
Teetsel is also Brownback’s son-in-law.
Both Teetsel and Weber said they thought Brownback had an extensive record as a senator working on human rights work and advocacy. Brownback and then-Sen. Barack Obama carried a bill and urged for increased U.S. involvement in Darfur, Sudan while they were both in the Senate.
Brownback’s critics, however, pointed to his gubernatorial record and said he had not been an advocate for members of religious minorities. Rabbi Moti Reiber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said he thought Brownback was very dedicated to his own religious practice, but that the governor did not have a record “of respect for religious minorities.” Reiber pointed to Brownback policies, like a 2012 law prohibiting courts from considering any foreign laws — including sharia — in their decision-making.
Moussa Elbayoumy, chairman of the Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said use of the Muslim sharia principles is nearly non-existent in the U.S. and that the bill was intended to promote fear and “vilify” Muslim people.
“He has not shown any inclination to or any consideration for people of other faiths,” Elbayoumy said.
Brownback said during a news conference Wednesday that he thought religious freedom was for members of all religions.
LGBTQ advocates also raised concern about Brownback’s appointment because of his support of laws protecting people who refuse to serve LGBTQ people and opposition to same-sex marriage.