Molly Bangs, Director | November 13, 2020 Blog Post

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump administration political appointees are not going out quietly. Days after denying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory and falsely claiming the State Department would transition to a second Trump term, Pompeo will give opening remarks at the third annual Ministerial on Religious Freedom on November 16. Let’s call this event what it is: the Trump-Pence administration’s last-ditch effort to push their increasingly authoritarian, anti-human rights agenda. This year, the Ministerial will be hosted by the Polish government as a virtual event in Warsaw — against the backdrop of tens of thousands of Polish women’s weeks-long strikes and protests against the country’s recent abortion ban

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the Ministerial on Religious Freedom has taken place annually under the State Department, with Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback at the helm. The event convenes diplomats from national delegations — but it also welcomes far-right wing, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ organizations as sponsors of side events. In years past, these sponsors have included designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom

This event is unfortunately completely in line with the pattern of anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ extremism that has characterized the Trump administration’s agenda. Put simply, Pompeo’s foreign policy is guided by the belief that religious freedom trumps all other rights. This was on full display this past summer when Pompeo’s unnecessary and imbalanced Commission on Unalienable Rights released its first report, which denies the rights of abortion and LGBTQ people, instead referring to them as “divisive social and political controversies in the United States.”

As I’ve said before, the Commission’s report also presents a concerning roadmap of how to co-opt internationally-agreed upon human rights framework. And it’s a roadmap the U.S. has followed itself: administration officials have increasingly used the term “unalienable rights” across federal agencies as a code for protecting human rights for only a select few, and have linked arms with authoritarian governments and countries with problematic human rights records. And in September, at the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Pompeo hosted an event that outwardly seemed to reaffirm the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but actually made clear that the Trump administration would continue to ignore UDHR’s mandate that human rights must be protected equally. It concluded with Pompeo asking for signatories to a declaration affirming support for UDHR in its narrowest form. Largely authoritarian governments signed on.

Many of the same governments with authoritarian leanings and poor women’s rights indexes joined with the U.S. in signing the Trump administration’s new “Geneva Declaration Consensus on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family,” which Pompeo and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar rolled out in October. In direct contradiction to its name, the Declaration erased reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

[Geneva Consensus Declaration,, accessed 11/12/20]

One of the Trump administration’s cosponsors of its Declaration is Hungary. The U.S. has previously praised and aligned itself with Hungary’s concerning human rights policies under Trump, including with U.S. officials attending a Hungarian embassy event on its xenophobic policy incentivizing white, native Christian families to have more children in an effort to counter Hungary’s immigrant population.

Among the co-signing countries, of course, is Poland — another ally of Pompeo’s on these efforts and the host of this month’s Ministerial on Religious Freedom. It is significant that this meeting is being held in partnership with Poland given the near-total abortion ban Polish women have been protesting in overwhelming numbers in recent weeks. The United States, a country where abortion has been legal since 1973, should be affirming the reproductive rights of the Polish people. Instead, the U.S. continues to align itself with the right-wing Polish government, with officials like Brownback on the speaker list for Ministerial side events including one hosted by the anti-abortion International Christian Concern.

This is all to say, it’s not surprising that Brownback would continue to weaponize religious freedom — for a select Christian few — at the expense of other human rights. After all, the ambassador for “religious freedom” has a long history of discriminating against Muslims, from anti-Islam legislation while governor of Kansas to protesting the jailing of the head of a far-right wing extremist group that organized violent demonstrations against Muslims in his current role.

Nor should we be surprised that Pompeo continues to align his State Department with authoritarian governments when just last week he denied the results of Biden’s free and fair election to the presidency. Make no mistake, these authoritarian remarks and alignment with similarly minded, anti-human rights governments through efforts like the Ministerial are incredibly dangerous. But surprise is no longer warranted. After all, we are the company we keep.

Molly Bangs is the director at Equity Forward. She is an advocate, researcher, and writer on reproductive health, rights, and justice, as well as other human rights. Molly has a strong background in political research, policy, and journalism having previously worked as a researcher at Equity Forward, and as an alum of The Century Foundation, The Huffington Post, and the New York City Council. Her bylines appear in outlets including Truthout, VICE, and HuffPost. Molly holds a master's degree in political science from Columbia University.