Yes Government Appointees, Your Religious Allegiance Does Matter to the Citizenry!

Mike Pompeo (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

As evidenced by same-sex-marriage-adverse Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, several presidential appointees, and now secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo, public officials (and those looking to become public officials) aren’t always cognizant of the fact that when they act on behalf of the government, they must follow our nation’s laws. And some seem downright oblivious that they are required, as part of their jobs, to apply and defend the US Constitution regardless of their religious beliefs.

Although the Constitution states that no religious test should ever be used for public office, religion does become relevant where it interferes with one’s ability to serve as chief ambassador for the United States and stand up for the human rights of everyone internationally. Government officers take an oath:

I… do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Pompeo was grilled by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on April 12 during a Senate confirmation hearing. Now that Trump wants his former CIA director to be America’s top ambassador, Democratic legislators like Booker rightly wonder whether he will protect the rights of gay people in his role on an international platform. Booker pushed Pompeo on his previous comments, particularly his suggestion that homosexuality was a “perversion.”

Booker: “Is being gay a perversion?”

Pompeo: “Senator, when I was a politician, I had a very clear view on whether it was appropriate for two same-sex persons to marry. I stand by that.”

Booker: “So, you do not believe that it’s appropriate for two gay people to marry?”

Pompeo: “Senator, I continue to hold that view.”

When pressed on how he would treat gay couples within the State Department, Pompeo replied that he treated all couples within the CIA “with the exact same set of rights.”

In the role of secretary of state, Pompeo would be representing the United States internationally in countries where gay people are persecuted for their sexual orientation. The Trump administration was previously criticized for what opponents called an inadequate response to the abduction, torture, and in some cases murder of about 100 men in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Serious doubt exists about whether a person who opposes equal rights for gay and transgender people in the United States would call on global leaders to provide equal rights for gay people in their countries.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said there will be serious setbacks for gay people around the world if Pompeo is confirmed (which, following approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday seems likely) “Mike Pompeo’s long-standing opposition to LGBTQ equality makes him a reckless choice to lead our nation’s diplomatic efforts,” Griffin told the Washington Post. “The State Department has a crucial role to play in advancing human rights—a role which was already rapidly declining under [Rex] Tillerson. This decision has the potential to make a dire situation even worse. Pompeo does not deserve to be confirmed.”

This past fall the US Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the pending Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission made headlines for the court’s consideration of exemptions to the right of service based on First Amendment grounds. The facts of this case are different because the service being withheld comes from the private sector. But the over-arching principle of discrimination because of religious belief applies and has major implications for the American public as the conflict plays out in the Supreme Court and in appointments of people like Betsy DeVos.

Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and claimed a religious exemption from her legal duty to do so. Her refusal conflicts with the principle that government may impose obligations on public officials and public employees in performing their official duties without violating their individual rights—if the obligations are neutral and reasonable.

Pompeo’s confirmation will be a big hit to the rights of secular and LGBTQ Americans and our country’s ability to set a tolerant, humane, just, and secular tone for international human rights.