For three years, President Trump and his top policymakers have given special access to certain right-wing religious groups while systematically rolling back protections for women, LGBTQ+ Americans, and religious minorities under the guise of preserving “religious freedom.” Now, led in part by two State Department officials you may not have heard of – Peter Berkowitz and F. Cartwright Weiland – the Trump administration is preparing to go global with its regressive agenda, undercutting U.S. support for human rights protections abroad, as it has done at home. Here’s what they’ve been up to Behind the Scenes:

Berkowitz and Weiland are Senior State Department officials with significant influence in affecting the long-term course of U.S. foreign policy.

Since at least mid-2019, both Berkowitz and Weiland have been members of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, which serves as the Department’s in-house think tank tasked with providing long-term strategic thinking and initiating policy planning and formulation. The Policy Planning office also undertakes special projects and provides recommendations and alternative courses of action to the Secretary. Since August 2019, Berkowitz has served as Director of the Policy Planning Staff, where Weiland also serves as a staff member. Weiland previously held the post of Secretary Pompeo’s speechwriter.

They are longstanding opponents of efforts to protect reproductive freedom for women and advance equal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans.

Berkowitz, also a Senior Fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution has criticized reproductive freedom and the legal protections for other individual liberties as threatening “the background conditions that keep autonomy from deteriorating into anarchy” and has accused progressives of forcing “the struggle for religious liberty” to “become again … a front-line battle against the tyranny of the majority.” After the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry, Berkowitz sought to rally conservatives to keep fighting to protect the notion that “the traditional family is the best institution for raising children,” echoing his longstanding argument that same-sex marriage endangers “parenting, child-rearing, and the structure of the family, which lie at the very heart of marriage’s purpose.” And in the context of another recent Supreme Court decision, Berkowitz criticized anti-discrimination policy on behalf of LGBTQ+ Americans as an effort to “conscript[] fellow citizens to the progressive cause and eliminat[e] from the public sphere views that dissent from progressive orthodoxy.”

Berkowitz’s colleague in Trump’s State Department, F. Cartwright Weiland, has supported anti-abortion litigation as a policy analyst for the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute (“TCCRI”), a conservative think tank opposed to reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ equality. TCCRI is known for peddling so-called “policy recommendations” such as: “abortion is never necessary in terms of saving the mother’s life” and “science is firmly settled on the fact that life begins at conception.” In that same vein, Weiland helped develop a “friend of the court” brief supporting the Texas law at issue in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which imposed onerous and medically unnecessary conditions on abortion providers in an effort to force their closure and restrict abortion access. Citing right-wing and pro-life news outlets Breitbart and Life News, that brief sought to “address[] the misconception that abortion has been proven to be safe and routine, even safer than childbirth.” Consistent with the Trump administration’s pattern of disregard for evidence, Weiland proudly relied on dubiously edited “undercover” videos purportedly showing Planned Parenthood’s financial interest in abortion, to support his position.

Now, Berkowitz and Weiland are facilitating State Department efforts to transform American foreign policy into a vehicle for promoting a conservative religious agenda, including through a new commission.

With Berkowitz and Weiland installed in the influential Policy Planning Staff, the State Department has continued to promote and empower right-wing religious ideology domestically and internationally. Over the past year, the State Department has led efforts to strike reproductive rights language from international agreements; cut sections focusing on women’s and reproductive rights for the third year in a row from an annual report to Congress detailing human rights practices of foreign governments; and hosted international leaders for what it billed as “the largest religious freedom event of its kind in the world,” in which Secretary Pompeo touted the Department’s training for 12,000 American diplomats that prioritized religious freedom as the “first freedom.”

Last year, the State Department launched a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” a committee working to articulate a definition of human rights that is grounded in certain religious traditions and that will eliminate rights for LGBTQ+ individuals, restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights, and remove protections for other marginalized communities across the globe. Berkowitz and Weiland serve as the Commission’s Executive Secretary and Rapporteur, respectively.

Beyond Berkowitz and Weiland, the Commission is chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, who Weiland studied under in law school and who shares Berkowitz and Weiland’s opposition to reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ equality. The Commission, which purports to be examining the very meaning of human rights, is nevertheless stacked with individuals who share a narrow view of human rights as derived from natural law to the exclusion of anyone representing mainstream human rights groups or career diplomats from within the State Department. Worse still, this biased Commission has largely been conducting its work in secret.

The troubling practices of the Commission violate a federal transparency law that regulates such outside advisory bodies.

So in March 2020, we teamed up with four international human rights organizations to file a lawsuit aimed at shutting down this unlawful group and preventing the administration from relying on any of its advice or recommendations.

What we still want to know:

  • What other projects are Berkowitz and Weiland involved in at State?
  • How are Berkowitz and Weiland coordinating with special interest groups outside the government to steer policy?
  • Did Secretary Pompeo seek the input of outside conservative groups in establishing the Commission or staffing it?
  • Are Berkowitz and Weiland working with ideological allies at other federal agencies to advance their agenda?