state department

First Diplomat for LGBT Rights Speaks Out

Photo via U.S. Department of State / Flickr / RNS

Randy Berry delivers remarks at a welcome reception on February 28, 2015. Photo via U.S. Department of State / Flickr / RNS

Randy Berry, 50, is the U.S. special envoy for the human rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people, the first such post ever created by a nation, according to the State Department.

In that trailblazing role, he said, he has an opportunity to help his two children grow up in a world more accepting than the one he was born into.

As someone who has “walked the personal journey of coming out,” Berry said, he knows how crucial positive messages and support are to a U.S. and global LGBT community plagued by young suicides.

Rabbi David Saperstein Tapped as First Non-Christian to Serve as U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, D.C. in 2002.

President Obama on Monday said he plans to tap Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, which was created in 1998.

As ambassador, the man named as the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine in 2009, will head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and will be tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world.

“When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the nomination at the State Department.

A Reform rabbi and lawyer, Saperstein, 66, has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years, and has spent his career in Washington, focusing on social justice and religious freedom issues. He was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges upon the exercise of religion.

Keystone XL: Ambiguity is the Enemy of Progress

Photo by Liz Schmitt / Sojourners

Photo by Liz Schmitt / Sojourners

The U.S. needs to quit its crude oil habit. TransCanada needs to see the individuals whose health is directly threatened by Keystone XL. The president and legislators alike need to act for the welfare of not only this generation but for the generations to come, if we indeed want to see the flourishing of future generations. We need to admit to our addiction to oil and identify its harmful ecological impact for what it is.

As a person of faith, I want to see our landscapes, waters and skies restored to wholeness. I am compelled by the love I’ve received from God and God’s people to work alongside others for the common good of all. Having experienced the crisp June evenings of Minnesota as well as the asthma-inducing smog of Hong Kong, I know both the beauty of fresh air and green spaces and the dullness of pollution and gray skies. The chances of enjoying the former are quickly dwindling at our current rate of oil consumption, but we still have time to prevent further environmental degradation, if not for future generations then at least for those of us who still look forward to the rest of their lives, no matter our age.

State Department's Final Review of Keystone XL: Negligible Impact?

Forward on Climate Rally, Photo by Scot DeGraf

Forward on Climate Rally, Photo by Scot DeGraf

Friday at 3 p.m. ET, the State Department released their long-awaited final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement of the Keystone XL pipeline extension, a proposed project from TransCanada to build a new pipeline for transporting tar sands crude oil from Canada to a refinery in Texas where it will likely be exported internationally.

Environmentalists and concerned citizens on the pipeline’s pathway have been waiting for the State Department to address previously ignored issues like the pipeline’s impact on climate pollution. President Obama said in a climate-focused speech last year that he would only approve Keystone XL if it did not pose a significant risk of climate pollution, so although State Department looked at other environmental risks as well (such as the 1,692 pipeline spills or incidents that occurred from 2002 to 2012 in the United States). This review concludes that the number of U.S. jobs to be created – once estimated in the tens of thousands – will actually be 50 operations jobs, with only 35 permanent. The rest (the touted 42,000 number) are all temporary construction jobs.

Court: Law Designating ‘Israel’ as Birthplace Unconstitutional

Photo courtesy RNS/

United States passport. Photo courtesy RNS/

A federal appeals court has ruled unconstitutional a 2002 law that allows Americans born in Jerusalem to designate Israel as their birth country on their passports.

The lawsuit, brought by an American couple whose American son was born in Israel in 2002, challenged the government to uphold the law. Instead the court found it unconstitutional.

The State Department has not permitted Americans born in the city to list “Israel” as their birthplace on their passports, despite the law.

Activists: 15 Years Later, Religious Freedom Law Falls Short

Photo courtesy RNS.

The first-ever congressional hearing on the International Religious Freedom Act. Photo courtesy RNS.

Fifteen years after Congress passed a law to better protect global religious freedom, the legislation is failing to fulfill its mission, activists told lawmakers on Thursday.

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) chartered the bipartisan and independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is charged with advising the State Department and Capitol Hill on protecting religious freedoms abroad.

It also created the State Department’s position of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, and requires the State Department to name “countries of particular concern” that most egregiously violate religious liberties.

Does Religious Freedom Report Need More ‘Teeth?'

 Photo courtesy State Department/Public Domain via Flickr (

John Kerry releases the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. Photo courtesy State Department/Public Domain via Flickr

The Obama administration isn’t afraid to call out Republicans for playing politics on Capitol Hill, or Wall Street for runaway profits or insurance companies for health care woes.

But why, when it comes to protecting religious freedom abroad, is the State Department so hesitant to name names?

Watchdogs say the State Department missed a key opportunity to put teeth into its annual assessment of global religious freedom, which was released by Secretary of State John Kerry Monday.

Continuing a pattern begun under President George W. Bush, the report does not include a list of “countries of particular concern,” or “CPCs” — the diplomatic term for countries that either actively suppress religious freedom or don’t do enough to protect it.

Obama May Delay Controversial Keystone XL Decision Until 2014

Climate defenders should celebrate the news that Obama is continuing to delay signing a permit that would allow foreign-owned mining company TransCanada a permit to build the northern route of the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S.

After the State Department once again released a highly flawed assessment in March and the Environmental Protection Agency called it “deeply flawed” (again), we see that grassroots pressure is creating an effective roadblock on this incredibly dangerous path.

From Reuters:

The Obama administration is unlikely to make a decision on the Canada-to-Nebraska Keystone XL pipeline until late this year as it painstakingly weighs the project’s impact on the environment and on energy security, a U.S. official and analysts said on Friday.

The decision may not be made until November, December or even early 2014, said a U.S. official … who did not want to be named given the sensitive nature of the project.

Analysts agreed that a decision would not be made by this summer as the State Department had suggested when it issued an environmental review on the pipeline on March 1.

15 Countries Cited for Religious Freedom Violations

World religion symbols, nogoudfwete /

World religion symbols, nogoudfwete /

It can be hard to come up with a list of countries with the most egregious records on religious freedom when some of the world’s worst offenders aren’t even nation states.

For its annual report of violators, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom counts 15 nations where abuse of religious liberty is “systemic, egregious, and ongoing.”

But the commission, which was created by Congress in 1998 as an independent watchdog panel, also wants to highlight the crimes of non-nations, which for the first time this year get their own section in the report. 

EPA Gives Rebuttal to State Department's Keystone Analysis

Forward on Climate Rally, Photo by Scot DeGraf

Forward on Climate Rally, Photo by Scot DeGraf

In the midst of our celebration of Earth Day, government agencies continued the debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands across the United States into the gulf coast of Texas to be refined and shipped elsewhere. The State Department, tasked with reviewing the pipeline’s environmental impact, gave it a tentative pass a month and a half ago.

Activists across the country sprang into action to oppose the pipeline, citing its contribution to climate change and risk of oil spills. Supporters of the pipeline shot back, denying the climate impact of the pipeline and claiming that the oil would be produced whether or not the Keystone project moved forward.

The Environmental Protection Agency responded yesterday, calling into question the State Department’s findings and echoing the concerns of environmental activists everywhere: the Keystone Pipeline would be greatly exacerbate climate change