House passes religious freedom reform bill

Religious Liberty | Measure would strengthen U.S. State Department emphasis on the importance of religious liberty issues around the world
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 5/17/16, 09:30 am

WASHINGTON—The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill late Monday to give the State Department more tools to promote religious freedom abroad.

“Around the world we are witnessing an unprecedented crisis of international religious freedom, a crisis that continues to create millions of victims,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who introduced the bipartisan legislation with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. “A robust religious freedom diplomacy is necessary to advance U.S. interests in stability, security, and economic development.“

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act is named for the retired congressman—WORLD’s 2014 Daniel of the Year—who authored the landmark 1998 law that created the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. H.R. 1150 is the first update to that law.

The new legislation requires the State Department to train foreign service officers on religious freedom and annually designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs)—something that hasn’t always happened during the last two decades. Those designations would include a new classification for non-state actors such as ISIS and a “special watch list” that automatically becomes a CPC designation if a country or entity remains on it three consecutive years.

The bill also creates a floor of 25 full-time employees at the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and makes the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom report directly to the secretary of state—a provision advocates cite as the most important part of the measure.

“This bill will improve U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom globally, better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism, address persecution, mitigate conflict and help the ambassador at large for religious freedom to coordinate religious freedom efforts,” Eshoo said. 

The bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month without opposition and amassed 116 cosponsors en route to final passage. It is a top priority for the international religious freedom community.

“Over 60 organizations and individuals signed a multi-faith letter and have long advocated for passage of this vital legislation because we believe it strengthens IRFA at a critical time when assaults on religious freedom around the world are systemic and growing,” said Greg Mitchell, co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. “International religious freedom … is the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon, pre-emptively undermining religious extremism.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced companion legislation in the Senate, but no timetable has been set for its consideration in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I applaud the House for unanimously passing Congressman Smith’s critical, bipartisan legislation to advance religious freedom around the world,” Rubio said. “I am proud to partner with him in advancing the Senate version of the bill, and urge my colleagues in the Senate to follow suit.”

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD Radio’s managing editor. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012 and eventually becoming WORLD’s Washington Bureau chief. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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