Religious Freedom Commission’s Struggles

By Jacqueline L. Salmon Is the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom going to disappear in 2011? That is when … Continued

By Jacqueline L. Salmon

Is the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom going to disappear in 2011? That is when it’s set to sunset under its authorizing legislation.

The agency, an independent commission charged with pressing the U.S. government to include religious freedom in its foreign policy, has been struggling a bit recently. Its executive director quit abruptly recently after less than a year on the job, and sources say some of the eight members of the panel aren’t exactly hitting it off. Lots of tension, I’m told, although commission vice chairman Michael Cromartie says not so. It’s more that commission members feel strongly about the subject of religious persecution, he said.

“Sometimes people bring strong emotions and strong opinions to the table…understandably, passions can run high,” Cromartie said.

One Congressional representative recently proposed dramatically cutting the commission’s funding. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz) wrote Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, in April proposing that the Commission’s $4 million budget begin to be phased out in FY 2010.

A source in Franks’ office, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Franks envisioned the money going to directly to groups on the ground instead of to the commission.

“We were looking at new ways of actually advancing religious freedom and getting more changes on the ground and so we felt that would be a better approach than the commission, which, while it served a useful purpose in the past, has been bogged down a lot in the last couple of year and not really able to fulfill its mandate,” the source said.

In the end, UCIRF kept its funding, and Franks now says he’s hopeful that new commission chairman Leonard Leo–executive vice president of the Federalist Society— will provide strong leadership to the commission.

For his part, the politically well connected Leo has been hitting the Hill a lot, paying visits to powerful Congressional representatives and making USCIRF’s case. Leo professes not to be worried about USCIRF’s funding.

“As long as we’re adding value, establishing some good benchmarks for performance, I think coordinating with the executive branch and Congress in a way that’s meaningful…I think that the commission will be fine,” he said.

The commission’s big supporter, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va), says he is absolutely opposed to cutting the commission’s funding.
“I don’t understand where you would put it. You certainly wouldn’t give it to the State Department,” said Wolf. “They certainly have a very poor record with regard to human rights and religion.”

Wolf recently headed off an attempt by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif) to request an investigation of the agency. “That was a way to kill the commission,” contends Wolf.

Wolf said he understood that the request came from a staff member in Berman’s office and that Berman withdrew the request when Wolf spoke to him about it.

The commission, Wolf says, “speaks out on behalf of …people who are persecuted for their faith.”

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