With no funding, USCIRF takes steps to close

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The United States' watchdog for worldwide religious liberty has taken steps for its closure if Congress does not extend its life by Dec. 16.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) will cease to operate if Congress does not pass and President Obama does not sign into law no later than Dec. 16 legislation either reauthorizing it or continuing its funding. USCIRF is currently funded in a spending bill that expires on that date.

USCIRF released a resolution Dec. 6 outlining preparations for its closure in case of congressional or presidential inaction. The nine commissioners called for USCIRF Executive Director Jackie Wolcott and the staff to make sure the commission follows federal law in shutting down, saves and archives the panel's records, and arranges for storage of the archives. The panel said it was required by federal law to make such preparations.

In announcing their action, the commissioners said it is their "most fervent hope" USCIRF would be reauthorized.

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.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and other religious freedom advocates have urged Congress to reauthorize the commission, saying not to do so would be a disaster for faith adherents overseas.

"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. 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," said Land, who is a USCIRF commissioner.

Congress already has approved three times during budget battles this fall measures that keep 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 funds through Nov. 18. On Nov. 17, Congress adopted another funding extension, this time to Dec. 16.

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.

The September measure approved by the House 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 the reauthorization bill.


Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.