Congress Hits Refresh Button on U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy

By: Judd Birdsall

In May the House passed a bipartisan bill that would bring America’s global religious freedom advocacy into the twenty-first century. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150) provides a number of critical updates and upgrades to the existing International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The new bill—or Marco Rubio’s nearly identical Senate version (S. 2878)—merits the Senate’s prompt approval. 

In its day the 1998 IRFA was an innovative, landmark piece of legislation. It created a vast architecture—an ambassador-at-large, State Department office, independent commission, reports, lists, sanctions, and other tools—for advancing religious freedom abroad. It became a model for other liberal democracies as they joined the fight for freedom of religion and belief worldwide. 

But in the intervening 18 years, as scholarship on religion in global affairs has raced forward and the dynamics of religious persecution have morphed and complexified, the legislative mandate of U.S. IRF policy has remained stuck in the '90s. 

I served in the State Department’s IRF Office during the Bush and Obama administrations and experienced first-hand how the 1998 act created both important opportunities and conceptual, bureaucratic, and practical obstacles to a more effective U.S. promotion of religious liberty. 

Conceptually, IRFA framed U.S. promotion of religious freedom as a humanitarian objective largely disconnected from broader strategic goals. It appealed to America’s historical experience, international human rights documents, and the gruesome realities of persecution in the modern world. These are all important motivating factors. But it did not detail why assisting persecuted individuals might advance long-term U.S. strategic interests in democracy, civil society, security, and economic development. 

The Act also failed to explicitly extend religious freedom to the non-religious. 

Bureaucratically, the 1998 act established the IRF Office but did not specify its size, structure, or where the State Department should place the office within its vast bureaucracy. The Clinton Administration, which had vigorously denounced the IRF Act for creating a so-called “hierarchy of human rights,” placed the new office within the existing human rights bureau. 

This arrangement set up an inherently awkward dynamic. As former IRF Office director Tom Farr once noted, “The position of ambassador at large, created by the act as ‘principal advisor to the president and secretary,’ is viewed at the State Department as a mere deputy in the human rights bureau.” 

Placement inside the human rights bureau does make sense and the current ambassador David Saperstein is highly respected inside and outside the bureau. But there remains some ambiguity about what exactly it means in practice for the ambassador to serve from within his bureau as the principal religious freedom advisor to the secretary and the president. 

Practically, many of IRFA’s tools for promoting religious freedom—for example, denunciations, sanctions, and travel bans—were designed for an era when states were seen as the leading drivers of persecution and the United States enjoyed perhaps the pinnacle of its unipolar moment. New and revised tools are needed in an increasingly multipolar world, and one in which non-state actors can commit genocide. 

The Wolf Act, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and named in honor of retired congressman and lifelong champion of religious liberty Frank Wolf (R-VA), addresses these and other conceptual, bureaucratic, and practical obstacles and provides added diplomatic ammunition in the battle for belief rights. 

Conceptually, H.R. 1150 amends the 1998 act with a strategic case for religious freedom, greater nuance on the dynamics of persecution, and an explicit expansion of the purview of religious freedom to cover non-theistic and non-religious beliefs. 

The Wolf Act argues that religious freedom promotion “advances United States interests in stability, security, and development globally.” A wealth of recent social science data backs up these claims. 

Recognizing that religion is often not merely an individual or communal activity, the bill considers abuses of religious freedom to include ‘‘policies that ban or restrict the public manifestation of religious belief and the peaceful involvement of religious groups or their members in the political life of each such foreign country.” The act also explicitly confirms that religious freedom advocacy includes pursuing full and equal rights for “non-theists, humanists, and atheists.” 

Bureaucratically, the Wolf Act articulates the sense of Congress that the State Department should consider elevating the IRF Office and the ambassador-at-large to the Office of the Secretary. This won’t happen, nor does it have to. “Should” does not mean “shall” (that is, must) in legislative speak. But this point sends an important message of congressional support for the IRF office and its ambassador. 

Lest a future administration regard its IRF ambassador as a “mere deputy,” the Wolf Act stipulates that the ambassador shall coordinate international religious freedom policies across all U.S. government activity and should participate in any interagency processes where religious freedom is relevant. 

The Act also amends the 1998 bill with a mandatory minimum of at least 25 full-time staff, a significant boost in manpower. 

Practically, the Wolf Act provides a range of new or enhanced tools for advancing religious freedom. I’ll just highlight three. 

First, and perhaps most significantly, the act offers a way for the State Department to designate non-state persecutors. For years U.S. officials have debated whether states, especially weak states, should be held accountable and designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC)—the government’s list of the world’s worst persecutors—for the actions of violent non-state groups operating within their borders. 

Should Nigeria, for instance, be a CPC for the horrific actions of Boko Haram? The rise of ISIS, which now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, makes the matter all the more urgent. 

The Wolf Act provides a solution, at least for how to name the problem. If the bill passes, the United States can designate groups like Boko Haram and ISIS as “Entities of Particular Concern” for religious freedom abuses. The president shall inform Congress of his reasons for EPC designations and should take appropriate actions to combat the abuses of non-state actors. 

Second, the act includes a provision for a watch list, a sort of second tier of troublemakers. Currently the CPC system is essentially pass/fail—you’re either on the CPC list with North Korea or you’re off the list with South Korea and 190-ish countries. A watch list would enable the U.S. government to put more countries on notice—and to offer hope and express solidarity with the innocent believers and non-believers who suffer in those countries. 

Third, the act safeguards a certain pot of money for religious freedom programming, to be managed by the IRF Office. It also creates a new, separate Religious Freedom Defense Fund to assist victims and equip defenders. Ideally, Congress would ensure this is additional money, so as to avoid engendering resource resentment within the human rights bureau. 

In a world where religious freedom is egregiously violated by far too many states and non-state actors, U.S. religious freedom promotion must be as well-conceived, well-structured, and well-resourced as possible. 

In 1998 IRFA constituted a ground-breaking new policy apparatus for U.S. promotion of international religious freedom. But like any constitution, it needs amending as circumstances have changed and lessons have been learned. The Wolf Act provides those much-needed amendments. For numerous conceptual, bureaucratic, and practical reasons, the Senate should—no, shall—pass the Wolf Act.

Judd Birdsall is a former US diplomat currently completing his Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. 

This piece was originally authored on June 6, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/30/congress-hits-refresh-button-on-us-international-religious-freedom-policy