Congress gives USCIRF 'stay of execution'

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The work of the congressionally approved watchdog for global religious liberty will continue for at least another four weeks.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives approved a spending bill Nov. 17 that includes funding for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the entire federal government through Dec. 16. Had Congress not acted in time, the federal government -- and USCIRF -- would have shut down at the end of the day Nov. 18.

Southern Baptist religious liberty leader Richard Land said he is "delighted that USCIRF is out of immediate danger of going out of business. However, this is only a temporary stay of execution."

It is the third time this fall Congress has approved a measure that keeps USCIRF operating temporarily. Legislators beat a Sept. 30 deadline by extending federal spending through Oct. 4. Then, the Senate and House passed a resolution to maintain funding through Nov. 18.

Efforts to reauthorize the bipartisan commission remain at a standstill in Congress, however. The House voted 391-21 in mid-September to reauthorize USCIRF for two more years, but the bill met a roadblock in the Senate. Using one of the chamber's rules, a single senator reportedly has put a hold on the reauthorization legislation. A senator who takes such action is not required to disclose his identity.

Land and other religious freedom advocates have urged Congress to reauthorize the commission, saying not to do so would be a disaster for Christians and other faith adherents overseas. Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, as well as a USCIRF commissioner.

USCIRF has played a major role in bringing attention to the persecution of Christians and other religious practitioners since it was established by the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The bipartisan panel advises the White House, State Department and Congress on the status of religious freedom overseas. Among its responsibilities is to make a yearly report on global conditions for religious adherents and to recommend to the State Department governments that it believes qualify as "countries of particular concern," a designation reserved for the world's worst violators of religious liberty.

"It would be a catastrophe for religious freedom and human rights around the world if USCIRF were to be defunded and go out of business," Land said. "It would send a terrible signal to persecutors and human rights abusers around the world that the government of the United States is no longer as interested in defending those they victimize as it has been in the past."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the Senate in late October to reauthorize USCIRF. Other defenders of religious liberty, including Open Doors USA, also have called for the same action by senators.

"Barely keeping an agency running is no way to demonstrate that religious freedom is an important national priority," Open Doors Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey said in a Nov. 17 statement.

Land encouraged others to exert their influence. "All of those who support the very important work that USCIRF does to promote and defend religious freedom around the world should continue to make every effort to make their representative and senators aware of their strong support for USCIRF and its critically important work," he said.

The legislation approved by the House in mid-September would not only reauthorize USCIRF but revise it in some significant ways. The proposal would change the number and tenure of its commissioners, as well as reduce its budget from more than $4 million to $3 million.

That measure -- the USCIRF Reform and Reauthorization Act, H.R. 2867 -- would reduce the commission from nine to five members, giving the president one selection, Senate leaders two and House leaders two. Since 1998, the president has had three slots to fill, the Senate leadership three and the House leadership three.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., possibly Congress' leading defender of international religious liberty, is the sponsor of H.R. 2867.

The Nov. 17 roll calls in Congress for the spending measure that includes funds for the federal government through Dec. 16 were 70-30 in the Senate and 298-121 in the House.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.