TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback said at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that he would keep a narrow focus on issues of religious freedom and avoided giving firm answers on access to abortion and the rights of LGBTQ people.
President Donald Trump nominated Brownback in July to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and he testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. The job is housed in the U.S. Department of State and aims to combat religious persecution worldwide.
After some praise for his previous work on religious freedom during his tenure as a U.S. senator, Brownback was pressed by two senators about his views on LGBTQ issues, abortion and the rights of Muslims.
Brownback dodged some questions and said he thought the office needed to stay in its lane. He said he thought the ambassadorship was a uniquely bipartisan position and that veering into controversial domestic topics could undermine its effectiveness.
“The beauty of this topic has been that people — we tend to focus on what bipartisan things are that we agree upon, and I pledge to you to do that in this role as ambassador for religious freedom,” Brownback said.
Former vice presidential nominee, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., questioned Brownback on his views on LGBTQ people, pointing to an executive order Brownback rescinded that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had signed to grant protection to state employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
Brownback said he did not think that decision sent an unfavorable message about whether the governor’s office is interested in protecting against discrimination, and he said such a policy should need legislative approval.
“I look forward to working with people, working with you, working with everybody — regardless of their ideas or views — on how we can advance the agenda of religious freedom,” Brownback said. “There may be differences on other topics.”
Kaine referenced other countries that persecute people for their sexual orientation and justify it on a religious basis.
“Is there any circumstance under which criminalizing, imprisoning or executing somebody based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable because somebody asserts that they are religiously motivated in doing so?” Kaine said.
Brownback said he did not know what circumstances that would be.
“I would continue the policies that have been done in the prior administration and work on these international issues,” Brownback said.
“I really would expect an unequivocal answer on that, but my time is up,” Kaine said.
Brownback also faced questions from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on access to abortion. She said she was concerned Brownback’s support for religious freedom made it harder for women to get abortions.
“Why is that OK in the name of religious freedom for certain individuals?” Shaheen said.
Brownback again said he needed to stay in the lane of religious freedom.
“I think if you start to veer out of that lane, you get pulled to other topics that other people are charged with doing, you’re going to lose the bipartisan support for the position,” Brownback said.
Kaine also asked about Brownback’s commitment to protect Muslims from persecution against the backdrop of his past religious freedom work and state-level policies Kaine said he thought could be seen as anti-Muslim.
Brownback praised Trump’s executive order halting travel from several majority-Muslim countries, withdrew Kansas from the refugee resettlement program and signed an anti-Sharia law bill.
Brownback said during the confirmation hearing members of all religions have the right to freely practice their faith. He said as a senator, he pushed back against the government of Myanmar for trafficking religious minorities. Rohingya Muslims currently are facing persecution in Myanmar.
“I will fight for protection so that you will be able to exercise your religious freedom in peace from any government or group — period,” Brownback said. “That’s what I have done in the past.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., appeared to support Brownback’s view on the scope of the position and asked how Brownback would elevate the position to play a larger role in overall U.S. foreign policy. He said he thought the persecution of Rohingya people in Myanmar was an example of cross-over between humanitarian and national security concerns that have to do with religious freedom.
“We have got to get more focus on this by a broader cross-section or we will not be effective with this, and if we’re not effective on religious freedom, you’re going to see violence continue to grow,” Brownback said.
Brownback has said he thinks religious freedom is continually deteriorating around the world.
“This is a fundamental right you have — to do with your soul what you choose,” Brownback said.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., urged colleagues on the Senate committee to swiftly endorse the nomination of Brownback. Roberts and Brownback served in the Senate together.
“Sam Brownback’s personal and professional commitment to religious freedom makes him an excellent choice to lead our nation’s efforts to promote religious tolerance and to fight against religious prosecution and discrimination,” he said.