USCIRF reauthorized, but 7 must leave panel

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The United States' watchdog for worldwide religious freedom gained reauthorization from Congress Friday on what could have been its final day of existence.

The House of Representatives approved by voice vote a bill to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for three more years. The House action came three days after the Senate approved the same legislation Dec. 13 by unanimous consent.

The good news for religious liberty advocates did not come without some disappointments for many of their number. The bill limits commissioners to two, two-year terms. That restriction will require seven of the nine current commissioners to leave the panel in 90 days. In addition, USCIRF's yearly budget will drop from more than $4 million to $3 million.

Richard Land -- one of USCIRF's commissioners and a Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate -- said he was "delighted and relieved" that Congress had reauthorized the panel.

USCIRF's closure "would have been tragic for the cause of religious freedom and human rights around the world," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "USCIRF has been so successful in highlighting these issues that other countries have imitated the United States and started similar commissions of their own. How ironic would it have been for the United States to allow its commission to lapse?

"My only regret is the legislation does not allow for at least one or two of the current commissioners who have years of experience to continue to serve for at least one more term to provide institutional memory to the commission," he said.

In a written statement, Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., did not criticize the term-limit measure added to the House bill he sponsored. Instead, he applauded Congress' reauthorization of a panel whose work he described as "of the utmost importance."

USCIRF "speaks plainly about religious freedom abuses wherever they occur in ways that the State Department can rarely muster, during Republican and Democrat administrations alike," Wolf said in a written statement.

"[T]oday's reauthorization sends a clear message to repressive regimes around the globe that international religious freedom is a U.S. foreign policy priority."

Land -- who has served on USCIRF for more than a decade, minus a nearly one-year absence -- is one of the seven commissioners who will have to leave the panel within 90 days.

"The commission's survival is far more important than my service," Land said. "The continuation of institutional memory is more important than my personal service.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve, and I know others will be similarly blessed by their terms of service in the future," he said.

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.

The House voted 391-21 in mid-September for Wolf's bill reauthorizing 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 put a hold on the reauthorization legislation. A senator who takes such action is not required to disclose his identity, but Sen. Richard Durbin, D.-Ill., was widely reported to be the member who held up the bill.

When Durbin finally acted to release the legislation Dec. 13, he attached the term-limit requirement among amendments to Wolf's bill. The amendments approved by the Senate as part of the reauthorization bill included one forcing USCIRF members to abide by State Department travel regulations and another extending the reauthorization to 2014.

During the hold by the senator, Congress approved three times in fall budget battles measures that kept 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.

When it became uncertain if Congress would extend USCIRF's life, the commissioners released a resolution Dec. 6 outlining preparations for its closure in case of congressional or presidential inaction. The panel said it was required by federal law to make such preparations.

Another Durbin amendment approved by senators restored the number of commissioners to nine. The House-approved version had reduced the panel to five members. Under the newly passed legislation, the president will continue to appoint three USCIRF members. The Senate leadership will name three commissioners, and the House leadership will select the other three.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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