At confirmation hearing, Brownback praised but also grilled about stances on gay people, abortion, ‘religious freedom’

Sam Brownback, governor of Kansas and a former U.S. senator, appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the nominee to be the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback received praise from his former colleagues Wednesday in the U.S. Senate for his previous work on religious freedom. But he also faced some tough questions from Democrats about his record as governor on religious freedom issues at home.

Brownback, who served in the Senate from 1994 to 2011, appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee in Washington for a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom in the Trump administration.

“Gov. Brownback has been a longtime champion of the issue of religious freedom globally,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said at the opening of the hearing. “He sought to ensure America’s first freedom is infused into our U.S. foreign policy. Among other things, he was a driving force in passing the original International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, which created the position the position he’s now nominated to fill.”

Brownback was introduced at the hearing by former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, who was the original author of that 1998 law.

“I have watched the governor involved in international religious freedom, advocacy for the bill, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Sudan Peace Act, the North Korea Human Rights Act,” Wolf said. “Senator Brownback was the first senator to go to Sudan, to Darfur during the genocide. I was with him on that trip. I watched him in action. We were in a village when the Janjaweed were doing things to women, and I watched Sam and, I will tell you, he will be an outstanding ambassador for us.”

Even Democrats like Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, who grew up in Overland Park, praised Brownback for his work on religious freedom issues while he served in the Senate. But he and other Democrats had some tough questions about Brownback’s record on religious freedom issues at home in Kansas.

Kaine in particular questioned Brownback’s decision in 2015 to rescind an executive order originally issued by Democratic Gov. Kathleeen Sebelius barring discrimination in executive branch agencies against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation.

“That was an order that created a right by the executive branch that wasn’t available to other people and it wasn’t passed by the legislative branch,” Brownback said. “I believe those sorts of issues should be passed by the legislative branch.”

Brownback did not specifically address his assertion that gay people have rights not “available to other people.”

But Kaine, himself a former governor, said governors have a responsibility to appoint agency heads who, in turn, hire staff who manage those agencies. He argued that a governor should have both the power and obligation to enforce fair hiring practices in state government.

“When I was governor, the first day, I did an executive order that protected people in a variety of ways, including on the grounds of sexual orientation,” Kaine said. “The first order I signed, about 10 minutes after I was inaugurated in Williamsburg. And I had an attorney general who made the same point to me. He said the Legislature didn’t do this. But I said I’m hiring agency heads and cabinet secretaries who are administering state government. And I think as a chief executive, one of the things I want to know about them is that they will not discriminate against employees.”

Brownback’s executive order came at a time when Kansas lawmakers were considering legislation that would have allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians in the private sector, if that discrimination was based on religious beliefs. Those bills were generally known as “religious freedom” bills.

In response to Kaine, Brownback said he did not believe his actions sent a message that he tolerated discrimination.

“And furthermore, being the ambassador on religious freedom, 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.

Brownback also took pointed questions from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, about the issue of abortion and the United States’ relationship with countries that completely prohibit abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

“How do you address that, for women who are denied access to health care, even women who are victims of rape and incest who are not able to access abortion services?” Shaheen asked. “Why is that OK, in the name of religious freedom, for certain individuals?”

Brownback, however, declined to get into a debate on abortion.

“There are contentious issues that people don’t agree upon, and this position (of ambassador) has tried to stay in its lane on religious freedom,” he said. “And we could veer off into a lot of other debate points and lose the support of the Congress, and lose support around the world. But I think the key piece is to stay in the lane of religious freedom, and those things that start to pull you out, you shouldn’t go there.”

Several minutes later, Kaine took another turn at questioning, challenging Brownback’s policies on religious freedom in Kansas.

“You have taken some steps, or Kansas has during your tenure as governor, that have been perceived as anti-Muslim,” he said. “Pulling out of the refugee resettlement program, voicing support for the Muslim ban first announced by President Trump in January, signing an anti-Sharia law bill.”

Kaine said there are Muslim communities around the world that are subject to persecution as well, including the Rohingya Muslims being driven out of Myanmar, and he asked Brownback to explain his position on religious freedom for Muslims.

“It is something I’ve worked on in the past, and I’ll work on it in this job, if confirmed, as well,” Brownback said. “I believe in a fundamental right to practice religion as you see fit, whoever you are, whatever your belief, whether it’s a Muslim group, if it’s a Christian group, if it’s a Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, Jewish group, whatever it is. You have that right, and 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’s hearing took place simultaneously with a hearing for Michele Jeanne Sison, a career diplomat nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Haiti. The committee did not vote on the nominations Wednesday but instead adjourned, leaving the record open so committee members could ask follow-up written questions of the nominees.

It is not yet known when the panel will vote on whether to advance the nominations to the full Senate, or when the full Senate will vote on their final confirmations.

Brownback has said that if and when he is confirmed, he will resign as governor, passing that job on to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.