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Lone Senator Holding Religious Freedom Commission 'Hostage'

Watchdog may close up in less than a month. (Updated)

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a small commission that monitors religious freedom. Last month, the House of Representatives voted 391–21 to reauthorize the USCIRF. The Senate, however, has not voted because one anonymous U.S. Senator is blocking a vote. If the Senate fails to act by November 18, the USCIRF will cease to exist.

In the Senate, consideration of legislation often requires unanimous consent. This means that any Senator can block legislation from consideration. The Senate rules allow what is often called a "secret hold." A Senator can put a hold on a bill by telling his or her party leader that the Senator opposes consideration of a bill. The Senator's name is not made public. In the case of the USCIRF, there is one Senator placing a hold on the reauthorization bill.

The reauthorization legislation is sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). Wolf is a social conservative who has a long record on issues of religious freedom. When the House considered reauthorization, Wolf said that it would be opposed by some in the Senate, though he could not name whom because of House rules on professional conduct.

Speaking on the floor of the House, Wolf said, "This bill has been held hostage by the other body—and keep the word 'hostage' out there as we think in terms of what this bill would do and what's taking place around the world," Wolf said. "I wish I could name—I know the House rule—and I would name the members over there if anyone asks me, but it's being held hostage … . And, quite frankly, I believe that some over there and this very administration would not mind seeing this Commission shut its doors."

The Senator blocking the bill is reportedly Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) (this has not been confirmed). Durbin is the Majority Whip in the Senate, the second highest leader of the Democratic Party. Durbin is not new to issue of religious freedom. He is chair of the new Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. In March, he chaired a hearing on the civil rights of American Muslims.

It is unclear why legislators oppose the bill. No House members spoke against the legislation when it was debated. Twenty-one voted against the legislation. These no votes came from Republicans, most of whom are tea party members or libertarians. Those opposing the bill included Ron Paul (R-Texas), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), and Tom McClintock (R-Ca.).

The USCIRF faced a reauthorization deadline of September 30. Last month's continuing resolution, however, gave the commission until November 18 to receive reauthorization.

The USCIRF was created 13 years ago as part of the International Religious Freedom Act. Today, the USCIRF remains a small commission that investigates violations of religious freedom internationally and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress. The commission is independent of the State Department. It is a low-budget operation, with just a three million dollar budget and no renumeration for its commissioners. The commissioners are approved by White House, Senate, and House leaders from both parties.

The USCIRF is one of two offices created in 1998 to monitor religious freedom. The Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) is part of the State Department. The USCIRF was formed as an independent commission, though one of its nine commissioners is the State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Supporters of the USCIRF see its independence from the State Department is a reason to continue the commission. Opponents, however, view this independence as a liability. Joseph Grieboski, founder of The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, says that the USCIRF has outlived its original purpose as a short-term think tank.

"USCIRF now sees itself as a watchdog, traveling around the world in the name of the U.S. Government and denouncing foreign officials on their record of religious freedom, making public pronouncements about what U.S. religious freedom policy should be, and condemning the Department of State for failing to follow its lead," Grieboski said.

One of the commissioners is Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. Shea said that the USCIRF is able to speak boldly against religious persecution because the commission is independent of the State Department.

"USCIRF's biggest contribution may simply be representing in the darkest, most closed corners of the world America's bedrock belief—the individual's inalienable right to religious freedom. USCIRF is one reliable voice within the government that does not find the issue of religious freedom too sensitive to bring up with foreign potentates," Shea said.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of USCIRF includes:

Clock is Ticking for Religious Freedom Panel (Sept. 21, 2011)
Panel Cites Egypt for Religious Freedom Violations (Apr. 28, 2011)
The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness | The increasingly irrelevant U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seems intent on attacking even those countries making improvements. (Robert A. Seiple, October 2002)
USCIRF's Concern Is To Help All Religious Freedom Victims | The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom responds to Robert Seiple's claims that it is only cursing the darkness. (Felice Gaer, November 2002)
Cry Freedom | Forget 'quiet diplomacy'—it doesn't work (Michael Horowitz, March 2003)
Full of Sound and Fury | Polemics at home and abroad does not prevent religious persecution (T. Jeremy Gunn, March 2003)
We Must Never Be Silent About Suffering | The CT religious rights debate continues (Horowitz, April 2003)
Diplomacy, Not Denunciation, Saves Lives | The CT religious rights debate concludes (Gunn, April 2003)
U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Criticized | Indian churches reject U.S. inquiry, but Pakistani Christians welcome it. (Oct. 2000)

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