House panel advances religious freedom bill
Religious Liberty | Legislation aims to increase religious rights abroad
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 4/20/16, 12:22 pm
WASHINGTON—The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed legislation today that would increase the priority of international religious freedom (IRF) in U.S. foreign policy.
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act now heads to the full House after the panel unanimously approved it. The measure is the first re-write of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a landmark law that created the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“The bill we passed almost 18 years ago needs to be updated to match the challenges of the 21st century,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who authored the bill and attracted 115 bipartisan cosponsors. “Research shows that where there is more religious freedom, there is more economic freedom, more women’s empowerment, more political stability, more freedom of speech, and less terrorism.”
The legislation mandates religious freedom training for foreign service officers and requires the State Department to designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) every year. Those designations would include a new classification for non-state actors such as Boko Haram and a “special watch list” that automatically turns into a CPC designation if a country or entity appears on it three straight years.
At the State Department, the bill creates a floor of 25 full-time employees in the IRF office and makes the ambassador-at-large report directly to the secretary of state.
“This bill will help the administration promote religious freedom around the world,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s top Democrat.
The original version of the legislation also would have elevated the organizational level of the State Department’s IRF office to be on par with the agency’s other ambassador-at-large positions. But the State Department opposed that provision and the Congressional Budget Office estimated it could cost as much as $8 million to execute, so Smith altered the language to a non-binding advisement from Congress.
Despite the concession, IRF advocates view the compromise as a notable step toward addressing what many see as a proliferating global crisis.
“The key to this bill is that it empowers a new U.S. national defense official—the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, who is a staunch advocate for putting the issue at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. “It gives him the authority and at least some of the resources he will need to lead an effort on behalf of the United States to address the genocide taking place in the Middle East.”
Farr urged Congress to pass the measure and President Barack Obama to sign it into law.
“The advance of religious freedom in Iraq and Syria will not physically eliminate ISIS. That will require military force,” Farr said. “But U.S. IRF policy can help prevent the rise and spread of Islamist terrorist groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, and lessen the prospect of expending American blood and treasure in the future.”
Smith told me House leaders said they will bring the legislation to the floor for a vote in the near future. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill next week.