WASHINGTON – Sam Brownback, in line to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, on Wednesday defended his decision as Kansas governor to scrap an order that barred discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Brownback in 2015 rescinded the order issued in August 2007 by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius that banned discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals in hiring and employment agencies under the governor's direct control. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing that Sebelius, a Democrat, had acted unilaterally and undercut the Kansas' legislature.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor, asked Brownback whether such an order sends a clear signal to a state's agency chiefs that discrimination based on sexual orientation won't be tolerated.
"I think that would be a rational thing," Brownback responded. "I just don't think it's a right that the executive branch should create without the legislative branch."
Brownback, a favorite of Christian conservatives for his strong stances against abortion and same-sex marriage, also declined to unequivocally declare there is no situation that would allow a country to cite religious freedom as the basis for criminally prosecuting LGBT people.
"I don't know what that would be, in what circumstance," he said in response to a question from Kaine.
Brownback pledged to "continue the policies that have been done in the prior administration in working on these international issues."
Kaine said he expected an unambiguous answer. The senator said there are still "countries around the world where you can be imprisoned and even executed if you are LGBT."
Brownback served in the U.S. Senate before his election as governor in 2010. Five years ago, he made Kansas an economic laboratory for the nation by aggressively cutting taxes. But if he's confirmed by the full Senate, Brownback will leave office with his Kansas reputation in tatters and his home state an example of trickle-down economics that didn't work.
LGBT-rights groups decried Brownback's nomination because of his socially conservative views. But his fellow Republicans hailed his choice.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Brownback "has been a longtime champion of religious freedom globally."
Brownback also would leave a Kansas legacy of far tougher restrictions on abortion and fewer limits on gun owners than when he won the first of his two terms in 2010.
He rejected expanding the Medicaid health program for the poor in line with former President Barack Obama's signature health care law even as several other Republican governors went ahead.
Brownback was an early advocate of U.S. action to stop genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, and visited Congo and Rwanda to decry humanitarian crises and call for better coordination in foreign aid programs.
President Donald Trump announced Brownback's selection in July. He'll run the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom if his nomination is approved.
Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner