In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act– legislation designed to get increased attention to violations of religious freedom around the globe. Central among its provisions was creating a bi-partisan, non-political U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Commission has existed since 1999, and I’ve been privileged to serve on it twice. It always has a 5-4 majority of appointees from the sitting president’s party, but it has always functioned without partisan rancor. After all, almost all Americans agree that protecting religious freedom is not only a constitutional right in this country, but must be a protected human right in all countries and for all people.
The Commission needs to be reauthorized by Congress this year, and Senator Durbin of Illinois has introduced legislation to do that–and also to gut the bipartisanship of the Commission. Since its inception, the lack of partisanship within the Commission’s staff and among its members has been wonderful. Durbin’s legislation instead invents two new jobs: Majority Staff Director and Minority Staff Director, representing the Democratic and Republican parties. He wants to turn the Commission into a replica of Congress itself, with dueling staffs seeking credit and blame for actions, blasting and defending whatever administration is in power, and making cooperative relations among Commission members that much harder. He wants to turn the party politics question from what it has always been– something way in the background, and not a matter that affected Commission work– into an ever-present factor.
Politicizing religious freedom this way is a disastrous move. It’s certain to diminish the effectiveness of the Commission and its work, undermining its ability to influence Congressional and Executive Branch action on religious freedom. That’s not the only flaw in Durbin’s draft bill, but it’s the worst. And it’s the best example of how wrong this approach would be. Keep the partisanship for health care or voter registration or taxes, and leave religious freedom alone. There should be no “majority” or “minority” or Democratic or Republican views of religious freedom. The sooner this draft bill is buried, the better.