'I look forward to being with people whose perspectives are very different from mine,' said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
President Joe Biden on July 30 announced his intention to appoint Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the openly lesbian senior rabbi at progressive LGBTQ-welcoming synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Kleinbaum will be joining a commission that includes Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and current commission chair Nadine Maenza, president of the conservative organization Patriot Voices.
Perkins, whose organization has been designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was appointed to serve on the commission in 2018 by Sen. Mitch McConnell, then Senate majority leader. That year, he said that marriage equality "isn't about two people who love each other. It's about obliterating every moral and cultural boundary humans have ever known."
He is also opposed to Biden's policy agenda, saying in March, "The policies that are coming out of this administration are literally from the pit of hell ... forcing you as a taxpayer to be involved in funding abortions, not just here in America, but around the world. The attack on religious freedom. The attack on our children, with forcing schools, this transgenderism, on elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges and our nation's military."
Congress created the commission, which is tasked with monitoring freedom of religion worldwide, in 1998. The commission's members travel around the world, meet with religious leaders and victims of religious persecution, and testify to Congress, write, and speak about their findings.
The panel consists of three commissioners chosen by the president, two chosen by the president's party in Congress, and four chosen by the party that does not hold the White House. All serve two-year terms and are volunteers, with careers ranging from academia to activism.
Kleinbaum would be the only Jewish person serving on the commission and one of only two LGBTQ commissioners: The other is Frederick Davie, a Presbyterian minister and senior strategic adviser to the president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, who was appointed to the panel by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in 2020.
Kleinbaum too had been appointed to the commission by Schumer earlier, in 2019, but was unable to continue when her position was up for renewal as the coronavirus pandemic began and New York was locked down, she told the American Independent Foundation.
Kleinbaum said in an interview, "I look forward to being with people whose perspectives are very different from mine. And I value being on the commission with a commissioner like Tony Perkins, with whom we have many disagreements."
She added, "I just think it's remarkable at this moment in time to have a nonpartisan committee that's mixed, with having somebody like Tony Perkins and somebody like Sharon Kleinbaum sitting together and agreeing that there are things on which we can agree and things on which we can disagree. But for the sake of this commission, we are looking at human rights and religious freedoms around the world. I think that's very inspiring."
Kleinbaum said she wouldn't go into specific issues she will focus on as a commissioner because she has not begun her work yet, except to say that she thinks it's important to protect the rights of "minority religions who are under attack." But she said that when it comes to issues of LGBTQ rights in U.S. domestic policy, there are limits to what people can claim the right to do in the name of religious freedom.
"That's essential to me, that people have the right to practice, even if it's internal to their religion, their particular religious practice," Kleinbaum said. "But the issue is, can they codify that into American law? The answer for me is no."
"The Catholic Church also does not allow its members to get married if they've been divorced. Have you ever heard the Catholic Church say, 'OK, nobody in America who has ever been divorced should be allowed to get a civil marriage license'? So that's what I'm saying. They shouldn't have the right to be able to determine civil marriage licenses based on their religious practices," Kleinbaum said. She also cited the example of human sacrifice, which is illegal in the United States whether it is part of anyone's religious rites or not.
Charles Haynes, a senior fellow for religious freedom at the nonprofit Freedom Forum, told the American Independent Foundation that the bipartisan nature of the commission gives it credibility when it issues reports.
"It's the strength of the commission that you have such broad diversity — and you don't get more diverse than these two people, there's no such thing," he said.
The commission is tasked with assisting the president in designating "countries of particular concern," specified as "countries that commit systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom." Its recent reports have covered countries such as China, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been placed in concentration camps, and Burma, where almost a million Rohingya Muslims have been driven out of the country.
The Christian right has often claimed that discriminating against LGBTQ people in social services and businesses is a matter of religious freedom. When the Senate began considering the Equality Act, a bill that clarifies and expands federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections in education, housing, health care, jury service, and more, religious right groups used Facebook ads to spread misinformation about what the bill would do.
Kleinbaum’s nomination comes during a year when Republican lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills targeting the rights of LGBTQ people, and transgender youth in particular. According to the Human Rights Campaign's May analysis of the bills, at least 43 of them referred to religious freedom as justification of discrimination. Arkansas, Montana, and South Dakota have enacted such laws this year.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.