The announcement that Rabbi David Saperstein is being tapped as the next U.S. ambassador for global religious freedom has drawn concern based on his recent statements on the issue at home.
“I've been following David's activities for 30 years,” Rabbi Aryeh Spero of the Caucus for America told CNA. “I’m not confident he will address the greatest threat to religious freedom today, which is radical Islam’s oppression and persecution of Christians across many parts of the world as well as its threats against Jewish people.”
President Barack Obama on Monday announced plans to nominate Saperstein as Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The position had been vacant for nine months, since the resignation of the former ambassador.
Religious freedom groups thanked the president for taking a step toward filling the position. However, some groups questioned whether Saperstein will truly protect religious freedom abroad.
In addition to serving as the current director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Saperstein was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1999, and served on the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2009, Newsweek named him the most influential rabbi in America.
However, Saperstein’s views on domestic religious liberty issues have prompted fears about his understanding of religious liberty. The rabbi took issue with the Supreme Court after it ruled this summer that the “closely-held” business Hobby Lobby was protected by federal law from being forced to comply with parts of the HHS contraception mandate against its owners’ religious beliefs.
The rabbi claimed that corporations like Hobby Lobby could not be protected as persons under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law he supported the passage of in 1993.
He also supported a Senate bill that would have overturned the Hobby Lobby decision and required religious employers with group health plans to cover birth control, regardless of their religious beliefs. The U.S. bishops and religious freedom advocates throughout the country staunchly opposed the bill, saying it would do away with conscience protections for business owners.
“In the weeks following the dismaying ruling in Hobby Lobby, we commend the Senate and House for taking swift action to ensure that women do not lose access to critical contraceptive care because of their employers’ religious objection,” Saperstein said of the bill.
The legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom said that it is “troubling that this nominee’s most recent statements regarding religious freedom were in opposition to religious freedom for family business owners.”
The Catholic Association, a group that works to defend Church teaching in the public square, agreed and went even further, saying the nomination showed a “callous disregard for religious liberty” on behalf of the president.
“This baffling appointment is akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor for the group.
“How can a man that favors upending longstanding, bi-partisan religious liberty protections at home be trusted to protect those persecuted for their faith overseas?” asked the organization’s senior fellow Ashley McGuire, citing Saperstein’s views on the Hobby Lobby decision.
Rabbi Spero told CNA that both Saperstein and the Obama administration have indicated that they will not defend persecuted Christians and Jews like they may support other oppressed faith groups.
“In my opinion, he will not issue nearly enough statements, if any, spotlighting the attacks, the oppression on Christians coming from the hands of Islam and in the name of Islam. He will rarely do that,” said Rabbi Spero.
“I don’t think he will because thus far, after six years I haven’t heard President Obama speak to the atrocities, the human rights violations committed in the name of Islam against who they call infidels,” he said.