Skip to main content

Features

Appointment calendar

Sen. Chuck Schumer makes a surprise choice for a religious freedom commission headed for big changes next month

Appointment calendar

Gayle Manchin (Tammy Shriver/Times West Virginian/AP)

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has quietly appointed the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to a religious freedom commission a month after the governor of West Virginia fired her from a state post.

The congressional record shows Schumer appointed Gayle C. Manchin to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on April 19. She has no known prior experience working on international or religious freedom issues. 

Manchin will take the seat of the commission’s vice chair, Sandra Jolley, who was appointed by former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., two years ago. Jolley has earned bipartisan praise for her USCIRF work, including difficult trips—such as one to Central African Republic and another to visit imprisoned Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey. 

Schumer’s decision not to reappoint Jolley surprised international religious freedom advocates and broke with commission tradition, since Jolley was eligible to serve a second two-year term.

Last month West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice dismissed Gayle Manchin as secretary of the state’s Department of Education and the Arts amid a funding dispute. The USCIRF post is unpaid, but the timing is striking ahead of Sen. Manchin’s tough reelection bid this fall.

The offices of Schumer and Manchin did not respond to requests for comment on Gayle Manchin’s qualifications for the position—or on whether Sen. Manchin requested the appointment.

The International Religious Freedom Act says USCIRF commissioners “shall be selected and distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law.”

Gayle Manchin’s background and degrees are in education. Before serving as state secretary of education, she was a member of the West Virginia Board of Education from 2007 to 2015. In 2016, USA Today reported she used the position to push for schools to stock EpiPens, which benefited Mylan Specialty, where Manchin’s daughter is CEO.

Former USCIRF Commissioner Richard Land said Manchin’s status as the wife of a sitting senator will raise the profile of the commission and make it easier to “get the ear” of senators on important issues. But he said her “apparent lack of background in this is a cause for concern. During my 11 years on the commission, my fellow commissioners were international religious freedom and human rights activists—and had a demonstrated record of being high profile on those issues.”

Congress created USCIRF in 1998 as an independent body to monitor religious freedom abroad. Commissioners meet with foreign officials, advocate for the persecuted, and provide policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress.

In 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that expanded USCIRF’s role, including creation of a worldwide list of religious prisoners. 

Manchin’s appointment is particularly notable since all of USCIRF’s other eight seats are set to become vacant on May 16. Chairman Daniel Mark and Commissioner Thomas Reese will leave due to term limits, Commissioner Jackie Wolcott has been appointed to another position, and four others are awaiting reappointment. (Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, serves as an ex officio member of the commission.)

Last-minute appointments aren’t uncommon, but international religious freedom advocates worry the issue could get pushed aside. Congressional leaders make five of the appointments, but three are the responsibility of the president—and President Trump has left one commission seat unfilled for a year. That means the commission has operated with four appointees from each party, rather than the one-seat advantage typically enjoyed by the party in the White House. 

Former USCIRF Commissioner Elliott Abrams said it’s critical that the administration makes its appointments promptly. 

“I cannot explain this inattention,” Abrams said. “There should be an immediate instruction to presidential personnel to present top-flight, experienced candidates immediately—or the President should hand this responsibility to Vice President Pence and ask him to make the selections—and make them now.”

Land, who serves on President Trump’s evangelical advisory board, said he’s participated in White House discussions about who will fill the three presidential seats on the commission.

“I'm confident those nominations will be forthcoming,” he told me. “The people who were pleased with Sam Brownback [as ambassador-at-large] will be similarly pleased.”

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD’s deputy chief content officer and WORLD Radio’s managing editor based in Dallas. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.