WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted 61-36 on Friday to confirm Rabbi David Saperstein as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
“Those of us who have followed religious-freedom issues at home and abroad over the years know how dire the situation is today for many religious communities around the world,” said Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance, in response to the confirmation. “David’s leadership has never been more needed; may he go from strength to strength.”
The position, as an official part of the U.S. State Department, is charged with promoting and protecting religious freedom abroad.
The ambassador position has been vacant for much of President Obama’s time in office. It was empty for the first two years of his presidency, until Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook was sworn in to the office in May 2011.
Cook resigned in October 2013, and the administration did not nominate Saperstein until July 2014. Tom Farr of Georgetown University, a prominent advocate for global religious freedom, called the extended vacancy “bizarre.”
Rabbi Saperstein will be the first non-Christian to hold the position. Nominated by Secretary of State John Kerry on July 28, he is the head of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom when it was created by Congress in 1999. He was named the most influential rabbi in the country by Newsweek in 2009.
Saperstein has also chaired the Coalition to Protect Religious Liberty and served on the board of the NAACP and as a member of the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
His nomination drew praise from many, including Farr, for his previous work to promote religious liberty abroad. However, it was met by criticism in other circles for his opposition to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.
That decision, issued June 2014, protected Hobby Lobby and its Christian owners from the demands of the federal contraception mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions. The owners of Hobby Lobby said that the mandate forced them to violate their religious convictions; the Supreme Court agreed.
Saperstein was a supporter of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law under which Hobby Lobby found protection from the mandate. However, the rabbi argued against an “overbroad interpretation” of the act. He thought that Hobby Lobby was not protected under the law in claiming a religious exemption to the contraception mandate.
The rabbi insisted that “all women must have the right to make their own health-care choices according to their faith and consciences — including when it comes to reproductive health.”
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.
Saperstein drew support in the confirmation vote from all the Senate Democrats except for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Republicans opposed the confirmation by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., acknowledged that Saperstein’s views on the Hobby Lobby case contributed to his “No” vote.
He told CNA, “I don’t agree with his philosophy, especially how he opposed the Green family from Oklahoma.”