Senate approves religious freedom measure
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 5/19/15, 08:30 am
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Senate on Monday unanimously approved a measure requiring the Obama administration to take religious freedom into consideration when negotiating trade agreements.
“It’s not the task of government to purge religious conversation from public life,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who cosponsored the amendment with Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Bill Cassidy, R-La., and David Vitter, R-La. “It is the task of government to protect the rights of every person to live their faith and to guard those who choose not to have any faith at all.”
The Senate passed the amendment 92-0. If signed into law, this would be the first time in history that religious freedom considerations would be required for international trade discussions, according to Lankford’s office.
Religious freedom amendments aren’t always so easy to pass. Last year Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., proposed an amendment prohibiting aid to foreign governments who enforce blasphemy laws with the death penalty, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted it down 16-2.
During remarks on the Senate floor, Lankford said he’s been working with colleagues for two years to secure a commitment from the administration to make religious freedom a priority.
“I’ve been told over and over again, ‘We don’t talk about religious freedom in our trade negotiations,’” Lankford said. He argued the United States should “lead with our values and not sell out for a dollar the people who have been in bondage as a prisoner of conscience for years.”
The Senate is debating giving President Barack Obama trade promotion authority, or the ability to negotiate trade deals. It is expected to pass the Senate this week, but it faces a difficult road in the House, where members of both parties have expressed skepticism. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the measure’s top advocate in the House, has predicted the chamber will have enough votes.
If the legislation is signed into law, the administration will likely negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact including Vietnam. Last month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the State Department designate Vietnam a “country of particular concern” for its regular violations of religious freedom.