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Religious freedom panel gets reauthorization

After drama and legislative wrangling, lawmakers compromise on funding and new regulations

Religious freedom panel gets reauthorization

Tony Perkins speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. (Associated Press/Photo by Mark J. Terrill, File)

President Donald Trump signed reauthorization for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Dec. 20, following months of legislative grappling and controversy that left the future of the watchdog in doubt.

For the next three years, USCIRF will receive $3.5 million annually after lawmakers managed to include about a dozen pages of reauthorization language in the 2020 omnibus spending package. The agency is reauthorized until Sept. 30, 2022.

Created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act, the volunteer commission monitors religious freedom and persecution conditions worldwide and makes recommendations to the White House, State Department, and Congress. Each reauthorization cycle has brought political fights.

In September, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Bob Menendez, R-N.J., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chris Coons, D-Del., released a standalone bill to reauthorize USCIRF for the next four years. But commissioners found the original legislation untenable. It imposed new oversight and regulations on commissioner travel and public engagement. Some current and former commissioners worried the changes would morph them from “watchdogs to lapdogs.” 

It also would have changed USCIRF’s mission by widening its responsibility to monitor and report on the “abuse of religion to justify human rights violations.” USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins told the Christian Post the change would mean the watchdog would “begin policing religion in many ways. That would dilute our effectiveness and our focus.” Instead of focusing on religious persecution, commissioners could have found themselves debating whether certain practices, such as circumcision, are abuses of religion.

Commissioner Kristina Arriaga resigned in protest over the direction of the negotiations. 

Another shake-up occurred when Commissioner Ahmad Khawaja resigned after the Justice Department unsealed charges against him for helping to conceal millions in donations toward Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, legislative staffers continued negotiating and found compromise.

Some oversight requirements for travel and public engagement are still included in the reauthorization, but in a softened form. They require USCIRF commissioners to inform other commissioners of all speaking engagements. No longer included is the stipulation that other commissioners can vote to replace the original invitee with another commissioner. Also required: Commissioners will make their speeches available to other members of the commission ahead of time. Commissioners must also clarify when they are appearing or speaking as private citizens versus representing the commission, something they already do.

Perkins decided to agree to the changes—including redundant ones—to get other, “more onerous” aspects removed, he told the Christian Post.

The updated language also bans commissioners from being reimbursed or accepting money from non-federal sources for commission-related travel. They must report any travel not covered by the commissioner, a commissioner’s relative, or the United States government. Lawmakers raised concerns after Commissioner Johnnie Moore visited Saudi Arabia’s embattled Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sept. 11 and subsequently praised him. (Saudi Arabia, known for its oppression of religious minorities, is one of the countries USCIRF monitors.) Moore appeared in his personal capacity and, according to the commission, paid for his own travel.

The bill also provides USCIRF staff—but not commissioners—with free legal assistance and representation from the Office of Senate Chief Counsel. Arriaga thinks that will lead to a lopsided power dynamic: “This will result in a chilling effect on what should be routine and robust debate on serious matters of process and priorities at the Commission.”

The bill also raises the USCIRF executive director’s annual salary from around $156,000 to about $192,300.

With the reauthorization battle in the rearview mirror, the commission’s business is moving forward.

One day before reauthorization, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who nominated Khawaja, announced his new pick: Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, an activist who leads the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. Her congregation is the largest LGBT-founded synagogue in the world, earning her inclusion on the Huffington Post’s lineup of “Most Inspiring LGBT Religious Leaders.” According to USCIRF, she served as an adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. She is also a Democratic donor, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In an emailed statement to WORLD, Rubio’s office said that securing reauthorization “is an important step in favor of protecting religious freedom. I look forward to seeing this Commission fulfill its important mission and continuing to highlight religious freedom violations and advancing religious liberty around the globe.”

While the battle for funding raged on, the commission released statements of support for legislation countering religious freedom violations in Ukraine, spoke out against Saudi Arabia for its treatment of religious prisoner of conscience Raif Badawi, and applauded Congress’ formal recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.