While Congress moved bills on federal spending last weekend, it also approved the appointment of Rabbi David Saperstein as U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, a post vacant since October 2013. The nomination was confirmed by a 62-35 vote.
Saperstein, 67, headed the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington for 30 years before President Obama nominated him to the post in July, nine months after the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned.
Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said Saperstein "can be expected to amplify America's voice forcefully on behalf of men, women and children across the globe who face discrimination, degradation and violence because of their religious beliefs and practices. While he will be sorely missed in our own institutional leadership, we are delighted that Rabbi Saperstein is Reform Judaism's gift to those around the world who need him most."
Saperstein's nomination was lauded by many across the political spectrum. Despite a left-leaning domestic political view — the rabbi panned the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling allowing employers to opt out of paying for certain birth control medications if they have religious objections — he is highly regarded as a fighter for global religious freedom. According to Religion News Service, Saperstein pledged international issues would be at the heart of his new work.
"Religious freedom faces daunting and alarming challenges worldwide," Saperstein said at a September confirmation hearing, according to an RNS report. "If confirmed, I will do everything within my abilities and influence to engage every sector of the State Department and the rest of the U.S. government to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft and foreign policies."
Although Saperstein's confirmation vote passed by a healthy margin, one Democrat and 34 Republican senators turned thumbs down on the nomination, according to Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He noted potential GOP 2016 presidential contenders Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas were among the 11 Republicans who voted "aye."
Said Silk, "Otherwise the Republicans, led by incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, turned thumbs down. Among them no one has trumpeted his support for religious freedom more fervently than Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah."
In a separate action, Congress gave the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom a reprieve for the first nine months of 2015, passing a funding measure that included an authorization for the panel to spend funds appropriated for its operations. The Senate approved the previously House-passed legislation on a voice vote Monday afternoon, after months of legislative wrangling over the panel's reauthorization.
Russell Moore, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Conference, tweeted his appreciation Monday:
"Thankful to the U.S. Senate for their vote, just now, to reauthorize the crucial U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom."