On the Hill: Religious Freedom Ambassadorship May Soon Be Filled

Gov. Sam Brownback (photo by Gage Skidmore)

As part of the American Humanist Association’s mission to defend religious freedom for all, including nontheists and theists alike, we often work with the State Department and other executive agencies in addition to Congress.

That’s why the AHA was so pleased when the Obama administration nominated Rabbi David Saperstein to serve as the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. This person who holds this position, created by an act of Congress in 1998, is the State Department’s lead actor on religious freedom issues and works to protect religious freedom rights for all. Saperstein’s nomination was supported by nearly the entire religious community as well as the nontheistic community because he was an inclusive and hard-working advocate who had a history of fighting for religious minorities. Once he was actually in the job, Saperstein made sure to reach out to the AHA and nontheistic community for meetings, doing all he could to help our community, including his calls to end blasphemy laws around the world.

Unfortunately, Saperstein stepped down once the Obama administration ended and the new Trump administration sought to put its own person in the position. The religious freedom community was sad to see Saperstein go, but we recognized the right of the new administration to make their own appointments and eagerly awaited a formal nomination that we could evaluate and potentially support.

Sadly, no nomination was made for the first half of the year, as the Trump administration was bogged down in trying to fill other posts that it deemed more important. That all changed last week when Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was formally nominated for the ambassadorship.

The reaction to this nomination has been much more divisive than Saperstein’s nomination a few years prior. Along with other secular groups, the Secular Coalition for America was unable to support his nomination, issuing a press release explaining that their opposition was because of Brownback’s position on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom bills. Meanwhile, many evangelical Christian organizations supported the nomination, often for those exact same reasons.

While the AHA obviously disagrees with Brownback on those issues, we are waiting to formally stake out a position on the nomination until we are able to meet with Brownback personally, hear his views on religious freedom, and receive explicit guarantees that nontheists will receive equal concern and equal treatment from the  International Religious Freedom Office. A major reason for the delay in taking an official position on the nomination is the fact that former ambassador Saperstein has endorsed Brownback’s nomination. It’s also worth noting that Brownback’s confirmation is a near certainty and that we have an obligation as an advocacy organization to at least see if there is room for cooperation before staking out an adversarial position.

Efforts are ongoing to set up a meeting, so interested humanists should check back here in a few weeks to see whether or not the AHA will endorse or oppose this important nomination.