The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) began (see this report of a conference we held back when) as a House Republican effort to score points against President Clinton for allegedly not doing anything to protect freedom of religion around the world. It was a false charge, as Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar’s point man for religion, John Hanford, realized, and after intense behind the scenes scrapping, the legislation was cleaned up, embraced by the administration, and passed easily into law. But there was, at the eleventh hour, a bit of bite-back from the original anti-Clintonistas, in the form of government funding for a new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The USCIRF comprised nine commissioners appointed by Democrats and Republicans along with, ex officio, the new ambassador for international religious freedom, and a staff of its own. As a governmental agency, it sat outside the State Department, where the prime monitoring function was lodged, so as to provide an independent voice. In the event, the USCIRF has tended to see itself as the monitor of the monitor, effectively adversarial to State, which must necessarily weigh religious freedom and other human rights issues with other foreign policy considerations.
Now, unless there’s a last minute reprieve from Congress, the USCIRF will disappear in a week. That’s because reauthorizing legislation has been held up in the Senate by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who appears to be holding it hostage to authorization for reopening a federal prison that might be used for relocating Gitmo prisoners–something congressional Republicans devoutly do not want. Durbin, I dare say, is not at all averse to killing off the USCIRF. I say let it die, for reasons laid out in a Huffpost blog a couple of months ago by Joseph K. Grieboski, who runs a little international religious freedom foundation in Arlington, Va.
The whole idea of the United States acting as global religious freedom monitor is debatable, but if you think it’s a good idea, USCIRF has served mainly to make the job more difficult. On November 28, for example, the chair wrote an open letter to Secretary of State Clinton urging her to press the case for religious freedom in Burma on her trip to that country, and not to lift economic or political sanctions. Exactly what is such a letter supposed to accomplish?
In the years before IRFA, most of the federal government’s religious freedom work was done behind the scenes, on a nonpartisan basis, with leading members of Congress cooperating with the administration without a lot of sermonizing. Rather than continue to underwrite the USCIRF pulpit, Congress would do better to figure out how to reinstate the old m.o.