The Trump administration on Monday announced the formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, an advisory committee that will review "the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” Both the nature of the commission and those appointed to serve on it raised red flags for several human rights and LGBTQ advocacy groups.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the re-examination of human rights is warranted because “some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect."
Critics of the new commission, however, claim it is a "farce" designed to undermine LGBTQ and abortion rights.
Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Glendon has been tapped to lead the newly created group. Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, is an outspoken opponent of abortion and has spoken out against same-sex marriage on several occasions over the past two decades.
Glendon is known as the first person to accept, then reject, the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, which recognizes service to the Catholic Church and society. In 2009, she refused the award because President Barack Obama, a supporter of abortion rights, was scheduled to deliver the university’s commencement address that year.
Glendon began to sound the alarm on gay unions in 2003, soon after Massachusetts' highest court moved to legalize same-sex marriage. That year, she signed a public letter in support of the Alliance for Marriage's Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposed same-sex marriage ban.
In 2004, Glendon wrote that same-sex unions represent “a bid for special preferences,” because, she said, marriage is designed for child rearing. (In fact, just 20 percent of U.S. households were comprised of a married couple with children in 2013, down from 40 percent in 1970, according to the Census Bureau, Reuters reported.)
When New York moved to legalize gay marriage in 2011, Glendon urged the Legislature to shelve the legislation until sufficient religious liberty protections could be added. More recently, in 2018, Glendon wrote a glowing review for the cover of "When Harry Became Sally," a book that said transgender people are "a politically correct fad built on a shaky platform."
Writing in First Things in February, Glendon hinted at what her vision for a re-examination of human rights would entail. In the publication, Glendon stated that the United States should focus on rights that are “uncontroversial” and “must include protections against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin; and protection for freedom of conscience and religion.” Glendon omits any explicit mention of LGBTQ people, who routinely face persecution in many countries around the world.
“At one time, all ‘rights’ were considered controversial, but international law — and people’s expectations of their governments — have evolved,” Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said. “Glendon presents a hierarchy of rights. Yes, everyone should be free from torture, or arbitrary detention. But they should also have the right to marry, and to obtain reproductive health care. Those other rights are no less important, and indeed may be more in need of protection precisely because some people consider them ‘controversial.’”
Glendon — who did not respond to NBC News' request for comment — is not the only member of the newly formed commission who has raised red flags among those who support LGBTQ rights. An analysis by LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD found that 7 of the 10 people named to the commission have a history of "fighting against LGBTQ progress."
Among the members flagged by GLAAD are Peter Berkowitz, who in 2003 called the Supreme Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality “dangerous"; Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who said in 2011 that same-sex marriage is a sign of the “end times"; Meir Soloveichik, who in 2012 wrote in a blurb that an anti-LGBTQ book was an “influential defense of marriage as it has been historically and rightly understood"; Jacqueline Rivers, who in 2014 said same-sex marriages diminish straight unions; Christopher Tollefsen, who in 2015 said gender transitions are a “mark of a heartless culture"; and F. Cartwright Weiland, who in 2017 worked for a think tank that calls marriage "a permanent relationship between one man and one woman."
Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO of GLAAD, called the commission a "farce" and accused the Trump administration of "knowingly appointing activists who have made careers out of fighting against LGBTQ progress and is now providing them an opportunity to export their anti-LGBTQ activism around the world through the U.S. State Department."
'RELIGIOUS FREEDOM' AND 'OPPOSING HUMAN RIGHTS'
Among those who have praised the Commission on Unalienable Rights is Tony Perkins, president of the notoriously anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, which among other things conflates homosexuality and pedophilia. Perkins, who was appointed by the Trump administration to chair the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said this new committee would “help further the protection of religious freedom, which is the foundation for all other human rights.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing the formation of the commission, Pompeo warned that “loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy” and suggested a zero-sum game when assessing opposing human rights claims: “How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? What happens when rights conflict?”
Of course, one of the main constitutional conflicts today is whether freedom of worship guarantees the religious the right to refuse service — or a job — to a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person. The Supreme Court is set to rule on this issue next year.
Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale University, said the language used by Pompeo and Glendon — “natural” and “unalienable” rights — "is meant to refer to human rights before our time, the good, old human rights that are the basis of this country.”
“The idea there is that God, or someone, gave human beings a set of purposes, and that their institutions serve purposes that individuals don’t get to change, so their bodies, sexual organs, are for procreation, and nature made it that way, and rights can’t mean that you get to mess with nature,” Moyn said.
The commission comes in addition to the State Department's existing Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which issues an annual report on human rights around the world. While that report included sections on LGBTQ rights during the Obama administration, an analysis by Oxfam found that the Trump State Department was systematically removing sections devoted to women’s and LGBTQ rights.
In a statement shared with NBC News, a State Department spokesperson said “The time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.”
Although the commission is an ostensibly advisory panel without any policy-making power, Glendon made clear in remarks at the State Department that “we will do our very best to carry out your marching orders and to do so in a way that will assist you in your difficult task of transmuting principle into policy.”