Religious freedom panel wins 11th-hour reprieve

December 16, 2011

With a last-minute vote in mid-December, Congress saved an
independent religious freedom watchdog com­mission that was about to
shut down.

The bill reauthorizing the U.S. Com­mission on
International Religious Free­dom (USCIRF) for a three-year period was
held up in the Senate for almost three months before passing with an
amendment on December 13. The House approved it December 16, the same
day the commission was set to close.

"I'm very pleased to see that
the Congress has reauthorized the commission, and we can get back into
the business of doing what we do best, which is monitoring conditions
for religious freedom around the world," said USCIRF chairman Leonard
Leo.

USCIRF is a bipartisan commission that issues an annual
report of "countries of particular concern" on religious rights abuses
and provides foreign policy recommendations to the president, Con­gress
and the State Department. It has nine commissioners, a staff of 17 and a
$4 million annual budget.

Senate majority whip Richard Dur­bin
(D., Ill.), who had reportedly held the bill as leverage in a dispute
over federal funding for a prison in his state, proposed several tweaks
to the re­authorization bill.

Durbin's amendment will limit the
appointment of USCIRF's commissioners to a maximum of two two-year
terms. The term of any current commissioner who has served at least two
full terms will expire 90 days after the legislation is enacted.

The
amendment also authorizes USCIRF employees who have filed a
discrimination complaint against the commission to complete the
proceedings.

This last measure may be a nod to a former agency
policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, who filed a complaint against USCIRF
with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in fall 2009. She
charged that her contract was canceled because of her Muslim faith and
her affiliation with the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

(MPAC
issued a statement Decem­ber 30 saying that the term-limits provisions
should bring some "fresh faces" into the commission. "The commission
has--wrongly or rightly--been accused of being ineffective because of
their emphasis on condemning religious persecution rather than focusing
on promoting religious freedom," said the statement from the Muslim
group's Washington office.)

Rep. Frank Wolf  (R.,Va.), who helped
establish USCIRF in 1998 and who wrote the reauthorization bill, said:
"Today's reauthorization sends a clear message to repressive regimes
around the globe that international religious freedom is a U.S. foreign
policy priority."  -RNS