One of the most vitriolic anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim activists in the U.S. will now lead the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Tony Perkins, who was first named to USCIRF by Senator Mitch McConnell in 2018, will head the group for a year. Perkins is also the president of the Family Research Council, a far-right organization that lobbied against marriage equality and continues to work against anti-discrimination laws that cover LGBT people.
Established by the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, USCIRF is a bipartisan body. Commissioners are appointed by members of Congress and serve limited terms. As the commission explains on its website, it’s charged with tracking the status of religious freedom around the world, advocating for prisoners of conscience, and producing reports that contain policy prescriptions. In a post on the Family Research Council’s website, Perkins said that it was “a privilege to work with this diverse group of dedicated professionals” on religious freedom. But Perkins’s chairmanship will likely undermine USCIRF’s mission, and his hostility toward LGBT people and Muslims mirrors the Trump administration’s positions in the worst possible ways.
Like USCIRF itself, Perkins isn’t much of a household name. But he has for years worked toward a definition of religious freedom that maximizes First Amendment rights for conservative Christians, while minimizing the rights of Muslims, nontheists, and members of other minority traditions.
At various points in his prolific career, Perkins has argued that there is “a disproportionate overlap” between homosexuality and pedophilia and that the legalization of same-sex marriage will lead inexorably to the persecution of conservative Christians. In a column on the Family Research Council’s website, Perkins linked the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas — which found sodomy bans unconstitutional — to a host of other supposed evils, including marriage equality, rights for trans people, and the alleged mainstreaming of polygamy and pedophilia. Same-sex relationships remain illegal in much of the world, and LGBT people can face violence and death, meted out either by vigilantes or courts. They won’t have an advocate in Perkins, nor, for that matter, will many religious minorities.
Perkins has also shown particular antipathy toward Islam. During an appearance on CNN in 2010, he said those who follow the literal teachings of Islam “have perpetuated great evils on society.” During a 2015 episode of his radio show “Washington Watch,” Perkins claimed that “Islam is not just a religion, Islam is an economic system, it is a judicial system, it is a compressive system which is incompatible with the Constitution.” As Right Wing Watch reported at the time, Perkins went on to explain that he does not believe the U.S. is required to protect people “who want to blow — I mean, when was the last time you saw a Baptist trying to blow something up?” (Abortion providers may be able to offer some examples.) That wouldn’t even be the last time Perkins argued that Islam was mostly not a religion; the same year, he wrote in an email to supporters that “only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.”
The Trump administration shares Perkins’s animus toward Islam. Its ban on immigration from some majority-Muslim countries indicated early the depth of its hostility for Muslims. As HuffPost reported after March’s mosque shootings in New Zealand, Trump once floated a national database to track Muslims, and has repeatedly and wrongly insisted that Muslims in Jersey City celebrated the September 11th attacks. The Trump administration isn’t any more tolerant of LGBT people. Trans people are among its favorite targets: Since taking office, Trump has taken steps to ban trans people from serving in the military, and the Department of Justice rescinded a policy that protected trans workers from discrimination. At the same time, the administration has consistently defended a definition of religious freedom that allows people of faith extreme leeway to discriminate. If the administration’s idiosyncratic definition of religious freedom has ever bothered Perkins, it’s not visible; as president of the Family Research Council, Perkins has committed himself wholly to the defense of Trump and his policy priorities.
Perkins’s term as chairman ends in 2020, but the rest of USCIRF’s membership tilts to the right as well. Of its nine commissioners, five have links to right-wing groups; at least one, Gary Bauer, has also worked for the Family Research Council. Though Perkins won’t be around for long, his tenure as chairman marks a grim turn in USCIRF’s history.