U.S. senators considering Gov. Sam Brownback’s nomination as ambassador for international religious freedom peppered him Wednesday with questions, including some about his actions as Kansas governor.
During the Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C., Brownback argued that a lack of religious freedom lies at the core of many violent conflicts throughout the world. He firmly stated that he would stand for religious freedom internationally.
“You have that right, and I will fight for protection so that you will be able to exercise your religious freedom in peace,” Brownback said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio hailed Brownback’s work on the issue, including efforts that helped create the office in 1998.
“Governor Brownback has been a longtime champion of the issue of religious freedom, globally, and sought to ensure that America’s first freedom is infused into our U.S. foreign policy,” Rubio said.
Other members of the panel had some pointed questions for Brownback.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, asked Brownback about his reversal of a Kansas executive order that protected executive branch state workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Brownback said it wasn’t right for the governor to create those protections because it should be done by the Legislature.
Kaine pressed further on the issue.
“Is there any circumstance under which criminalizing, imprisoning or executing someone based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable because somebody asserts that they’re religiously motivated in doing so?” Kaine asked.
“I don’t know what that would be, in what circumstance,” Brownback said. “I would continue the policies that have been done in the prior administration in working on these international issues.”
Kaine wasn’t satisfied with that, saying he expected an “unequivocal answer.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, asked about denying health care, including abortions, for women based on religious reasons. She asked if Brownback would work with international groups to defend human rights issues “not just for religious minorities, but for women and for people in the LGBTQ communities.”
The office should stay focused on religious freedom, Brownback said, because touching on other issues could create division and harm its efforts.
“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, which is critical to have,” he said.
Kaine also asked Brownback about pulling the state out of refugee resettlement and signing a bill banning Islamic law.
“You have taken some steps, or Kansas has during your tenure as governor, that have been perceived as anti-Muslim,” said Kaine, who grew up in Overland Park and was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in last year’s presidential election.
Kaine wanted to know if Brownback would work to protect Muslims from religious discrimination. Brownback responded by noting that there is significant persecution of Muslims throughout the world.
“That’s wrong. It should not take place,” the governor said. “I will stand up and fight for those communities, as I have in the past. I will do that in the future.”
Rubio agreed with Brownback’s definition of the job as one that should focus on religious freedom.
“Your job would be to advocate for that freedom, for them to practice in peace. That is the scope of the job that you’ve been nominated to … not to litigate theological points or policy differences beyond the scope of that liberty,” Rubio said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn’t vote on the nomination nor indicate when a vote would take place. The full Senate also must approve the nomination before Brownback can take over the job.
Brownback has said he won’t step down as governor until he’s confirmed. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will become governor if that happens.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.