International Religious Freedom Panel Given New Life By Congress

A controversial commission on international religious freedom rights was reauthorized by Congress just hours before it was due to expire.

The House of Representatives and the Senate agreed in December to extend the life of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) but with changes. The group’s budget was cut from $4.3 million to $3 million, and commissioners have been term limited.

Created in 1998, the USCIRF was originally conceived as a body that would make recommendations to the State Department on religious liberty issues in foreign countries. Critics say the commission is unnecessary because the State Department already has an Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF).

In recent years, tensions have arisen between the USCIRF and the IRF, reported Christianity Today. Joseph K. Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told the magazine that the two entities do not work together.

“Instead, the relationship has become adversarial because the commission sees its role as that of a watchdog over the [IRF] office,” Grieboski said. “When its recommendations are not adopted, it becomes more shrill and strident, and this is not conducive to effective dialogue, let alone cooperation.”

Under the USCIRF’s new structure, most of the commissioners, who serve without pay, must leave the panel. Funding was extended for three more years after U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) agreed to lift a hold he had placed on the matter. As a condition of lifting the hold, Durbin insisted on changes to the commission.

The most significant change deals with the terms served by the commissioners. Under the new rules, the commission will still have nine members, but they will not be permitted to serve more than four years. This means seven of the USCIRF’s current commissioners will have to step down.

Many conservative and Religious Right groups support the USCIRF, arguing that it has been a voice for Christians who are persecuted in hard-line Muslim nations. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has served on the commission for nearly a decade but will have to depart under the new structure.

Among the commission’s duties is preparation of a yearly report on the state of religious freedom around the world. The report recommends that the State Department designate certain nations that seriously violate religious liberty as “countries of particular concern.”

Critics of the panel say it has achieved little and that its recommendations are often ignored by the State Department.

The USCIRF’s current chair is Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the right-wing Federalist Society.