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Is the State Dept. Scolding This Ambassador for Being Too Religious?

"Our constitution proudly protects the free exercise of religion — even for ambassadors."

Can you be a State Department employee that's too religious? According to a new report by the department, and the person targeted by it, that may be the case.

The U.S. Ambassador to Malta is on the defensive this week after an internal government audit rebuked him for spending too much time writing and speaking about subjects such as abortion and his religious beliefs, and neglecting his duties as ambassador.

The 41-page report released Thursday by the State Department's inspector general accuses outspoken Catholic Ambassador Douglas Kmiec of spending too much time on "outside activities" that "have detracted from his attention to core mission goals" in the Mediterranean island nation, such as promoting maritime security and American business. It acknowledges the wide respect for Kmiec in the conservative, Roman Catholic country of Malta, but notes that his articles distract him and his embassy officials by forcing them to carefully review his writing. They've upset administration officials in Washington too.

The audit goes on to say: "The ambassador should focus on embassy priorities and refrain from outside activities, including writing and speaking engagements that do not pertain directly to strengthening maritime security, promoting U.S. trade and investment and other mission goals."

It adds Kmiec's "unconventional approach" to being ambassador has upset State Department officials, "especially over his reluctance to accept their guidance and instructions." The ambassador has rebuffed their suggestions because he believes he was given a special mandate to promote Obama's interfaith initiatives, even as embassy staff must "spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing his writings, speeches and other initiatives."

While the report accuses Kmiec of spending an average of "several hours of each work day ... devoted to his nonofficial writings," it doesn't cite any particular comments from him.

Kmiec, 59, a lawyer in President Ronald Reagan's administration, is not a stranger to controversy. His support of Obama has made him a target of conservative Catholics. In the past, he has even been denied Communion by one priest. According to First Things, he was heavily criticized in 2008 for saying, “I do not understand Senator Obama to be pro-abortion.”

On Friday, Kmiec responded to the criticism by saying he was being targeted because of his expressions of faith.

"I must say that I am troubled and saddened that a handful of individuals within my department in Washington seem to manifest a hostility to expressions of faith and efforts to promote better interfaith understanding," Kmiec said in an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press. "Our constitution proudly protects the free exercise of religion — even for ambassadors."

Kmiec said the criticism of his outspoken religious views was "especially odd" because his friendship with Obama began out of a common view that "too much of politics had been used to divide us, sometimes by excluding people of faith."

But not everyone is buying that Kmiec is being targeted because of his faith. Jack Smith of the Catholic Key blog took exception to the Associated Press's coverage (which contributed to this article) of the story.

"The AP gives the impression that Kmiec is being rebuked for a forthright presentation of his ‘pro-life’ views, when he was doing nothing of the sort," Smith writes. "I don’t think the president is at all upset with the way Ambassador Kmiec has presented his views on abortion; it’s why Kmiec got the appointment in the first place."

Instead, Smith says it could be honest criticism about someone who is not fulfilling his duties and instead is being an Obama cheerleader.

But he also offers another theory: Maybe, just maybe, Hillary Clinton is considering a presidential run, and she doesn't want Kmiec "campaigning" for Obama.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

One last thing…
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