Bill would strengthen role of religious freedom envoy

May 12, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) New legislation proposed by a leading congressional
watchdog would push the State Department to make international religious
freedom a greater priority.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced a bill on Wednesday (May 11) that
would boost the profile of the ambassador-at-large for religious
freedom, require religious training for foreign service officers, and
reauthorize an independent panel that monitors restrictions placed on
beliefs and practices abroad.

The bill would also require the State Department report to Congress
about concrete measures it has taken toward countries that violate
religious rights.

"Religious freedom, often referred to as the first freedom, is of
central import to the American experiment," Wolf said on Wednesday. "As
such it should feature prominently in U.S. foreign policy."

Wolf authored the 1998 bill that established the State Department's
international religious freedom office, created an ambassador-at-large
for the issue and founded a bipartisan commission to monitor foreign
governments.

President Obama's new religious freedom envoy, the Rev. Suzan
Johnson Cook, was confirmed by the Senate last month. Wolf's bill, which
was co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., would give Cook and future
envoys a direct line to the secretary of state.

It would also require the secretary of state, the Treasury
Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to issue a
report to Congress on the best ways to use U.S. aid to promote religious
freedom.

In addition, Wolf's bill would reauthorize the independent U.S.
Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose nine members are
appointed by the White House and Congress.

The commission, due to expire Sept. 30, issues annual reports that
flag religious freedom concerns and offers recommendations to the
president, State Department and Congress. Critics say the bipartisan
commission lacks the teeth to execute its policy recommendations.