Clock is ticking for religious freedom panel

September 21, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) The independent and bipartisan U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom could be forced to shut its doors if the
Senate does not vote by week's end to reauthorize the panel.


The commission appears to be in legislative limbo after the House
voted Sept. 15 to extend the panel for an additional two years. The
commission is authorized through Sept. 30, but both houses of Congress
are scheduled to be in recess starting Monday (Sept. 26).


Before the House vote, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., urged fellow members
to support the watchdog panel that monitors the persecution of religious
minorities across the globe. But he worried that the Senate might not
act in time.


"Quite frankly, I believe that some over there and this very
administration would not mind seeing this commission shut its doors,"
said Wolf, who authored the original 1998 legislation that created the
commission.


The House voted 391-21 in favor of reauthorization; a spokeswoman
for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not immediately respond
to a request for comment.


Kalinda Stephenson, the Republican staff director of the
congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said advocates for
reauthorization had hoped it would occur earlier this year.


"With all the budget cuts, people don't see religious freedom as a
priority," she said.


Stephenson said it would technically be possible to resurrect the
panel if it was forced to shut down, but hopes that won't be necessary.


"It's a lot harder to revive a commission like that once it sunsets
than to try really hard to make sure that it doesn't close in the first
place," she said.


Wolf's reauthorization bill cuts the number of unpaid commissioners
from nine to five, and reduces the commission's budget from about $4.3
million to 3 million. It also calls for a Government Accountability
Office investigation to assess the commission's effectiveness.


Commissioner Richard Land said he has long been concerned about
whether the commission would continue past Sept. 30, as well as whether
its 15-member staff would retain their jobs.


"Given the budget crunch that we're in and everybody being asked to
sacrifice, I would rather see it reauthorized at five commissioners and
a $3 million budget than to see it cease to exist," said Land, who leads
the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty
Commission.


Commissioner Don Argue, a former president of the National
Association of Evangelicals, said he hoped the Senate would consider the
"human factor" of the commission's work and reauthorize it.


"Our commission is not even a drop in the bucket when you consider
the entire budget," he said.