What was supposed to be a routine confirmation hearing in the House State Affairs Committee yesterday turned into some serious drama. Kelly Tshibaka, Governor Dunleavy’s second pick for Commissioner of the Department of Administration (DOA), accused Representative Zack Fields (D – Anchorage) of violating her constitutional rights during a meeting they had last week. Tshibaka said that Fields placed a religious test on her when he asked her if her religious views would impact her job.
As Commissioner of Administration, Tshibaka sets all personnel and healthcare policy for State workers. She has made her religious beliefs widely known during her confirmation hearings. At all of her confirmation hearings, she has spoken about how important of a role religion plays in the life of her and her husband.
Yesterday, when talking about her and her husband’s plans after they met and got married she said, “God really changed our hearts. We are Christians.” She went on to say, “We became pastors and started a church that focuses on developing leaders, healing people from trauma and addiction, and helping orphans, refugees, and survivors and victims of human trafficking.” If you Google “Kelly Tschibaka” many videos of her appear speaking at her church, the Foursquare Church. She has made it clear that her religion is a major part of her life.
In a 2015 newsletter from her church she said, “God keeps wanting me to serve in government.” In a 2002 letter to the Harvard Law Record titled, “The Right Side: Coming out of Homosexuality,” she opened with:
Today is National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day, a day dedicated to helping homosexuals overcome their sexual tendencies and move towards a healthy lifestyle. Compassionate people nationwide recognize this day, rather than the more publicized “National Coming Out Day,” because they want people to live and enjoy their lives to the fullest.
Based on her role as Commissioner for the DOA, it is not unreasonable to ask her if her personal views will have an impact on her job. I spoke with Fields after the hearing about her accusation. Fields said Tschibaka requested the meeting. He said one of his staffers and the legislative liaison to the DOA were also in the meeting.
Fields said he asked about her views on homosexuality and commented that they seem to be linked to her religious views. He said he then asked her if she can separate her personal religious view on homosexuality form her work as a manager of a very diverse workforce. He said that she responded, “Yes,” and explained how. Fields said he was planning on voting for her based on the answer she gave, even though he personally doesn’t agree with her views. He felt her answer about separating her personal views from her job was reasonable.
Fast forward to the confirmation hearing. Her opening statement started out very normal. She talked about her family, her work history in the federal government, and her church. Then things took a strange turn. She said, “In preparing for these confirmation hearings, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with members of the committees ahead of time,” she went on to say:
The majority of these meetings have been enjoyable and productive. However, in my meeting with Chairman Fields, he asked me questions related to my religious beliefs, like how I would express my Christian faith at work, how my Christian faith would affect my implementation of laws and policies, and if I would separate my faith life from my work life. He told me to be able to answer these questions at the hearing today.
She then went on to talk about her career in the federal government and said she would not have been able to hold the positions or security clearances she has if her religious views affected her job. Then she let loose. She said:
In my last two confirmation hearings before the Senate I was asked if I would have the courage to speak up if I believed our State leaders were heading in the wrong direction. I said I would. And today I am. This is one of those times. The questions I have been asked about my faith are unconstitutional lines of inquiry that violate my civil liberties.
She then went on to talk about religious liberty, the State Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, and Supreme Court cases. When she was done Fields responded to her accusation. He said, “I did ask the Commissioner about her views on homosexuality and her ability to be a manager of a diverse workforce, and I thought your answer was entirely appropriate.” He added:
I was simply asking for you to repeat it on the record to reassure people. I certainly did not apply a religious test or intend to apply a religious test. I guess I’m just disappointed that you’ve made that accusation because that was not my intent, nor is that what I did.
You can watch the entire interaction here.
Fields told me after, “She grossly misconstrued my question. It is entirely appropriate, and in fact wise, to make sure the manager of a diverse workforce respects equality, and won’t discriminate against State employees. Clearly, asking about fair treatment of state employees is not a religious test.”
The interesting thing is what happened after the hearing. Not long after it concluded, Alaska Republican Party and Dunleavy administration propagandist Suzanne Downing posted a story, “The education of Zack Fields: Religious discrimination 101.” You can just imagine what she had to say.
Then, the next morning during a House floor session, Representative Lance Pruitt (R – Anchorage) spoke on the issue during special orders. His special order was “Protected Class.” He seemed to be real prepared for that special order. He called for a deeper look into what happened. Pruitt’s wife, Mary Ann Pruitt, is Governor Dunleavy’s Communications Director. The whole thing feels like a coordinated attack.
After Pruitt’s special order, Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D – Sitka) also addressed what happened in a special order. Kreiss-Tomkins is a Co-Chair of the House State Affairs Committee and was present at the hearing. He said he had no awareness that there was a disagreement between Tshibaka and Fields. He said he was completely oblivious to what was about to happen. He added, “There were a couple of bloggers in the audience, which always attracts my attention,” he added, “Which usually indicates some people know things that I don’t know. That something is about to happen.”
Let me be clear on this. I had no clue what was about to happen. I attend a lot of committee meetings, and I happen to be attending that one. I’m probably the last guy the administration would tell about a stunt like this. He also said some committee members had information that he didn’t have that was relevant to her accusation about Fields.
You can watch both special orders here.
Fields told me Tshibaka raised no concerns to him during their meeting or after. I sent Commissioner Tshibaka an email and left her a voicemail this morning telling her I had some questions about what she said about Fields. She has not responded.