Legislation was introduced on Capitol Hill Wednesday to force President Barack Obama's administration to assign a higher priority to international religious freedom.
Rep. Frank Wolf, author of the 1998 act establishing the International Religious Freedom office, is now proposing an amendment that would give the IRF ambassador-at-large direct contact with the Secretary of State and greater access to the president's foreign policy decision-making.
Under the proposed bill, newly confirmed IRF Ambassador-at-Large Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook would be moved from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor into Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's office.
Ambassador Cook would also be given oversight and management authority of the IRF Office and other religiously oriented positions and programs at the State Department.
Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, said he created the amendment because, since its inception, the IRF has not had the impact that it was intended to have.
"Since the original passage of this legislation, religious freedom has been elevated within U.S. foreign policy. But it still does not enjoy the preeminence that it deserves," said Wolf.
According to a Pew Research study released in December 2009, one-third of all nations severely restrict religious freedom.
The IRF identified the ambassador-at-large’s current position within the state department's hierarchy as being inadequate.
The U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also created by Wolf's 1998 act, also urged for greater access to the White House and State department in its 2011 annual report, released last month.
"Congress intended the ambassador-at-large to be a 'principal advisor to the president and the secretary of state regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad,'" it asserts.
"Since the position was established, every administration, including the current one, has situated the ambassador-at-large in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and therefore under its assistant secretary."
Additionally, the report notes that other ambassadors-at-large are situated in Secretary Clinton's office, thus giving them direct access to her.
"USCIRF encourages the Obama administration to fulfill [the IRF Act's] intent that the ambassador-at-large be 'a principal advisor’ and ensure that he or she has direct access to the president and secretary of state."
Wolf's proposed amendment takes the USCIRF recommendations a step further. If the amendment is passed, all future presidential administrations will be forced to take note of the IRF ambassador-at-large.
"This change is more in keeping with the original intent of the legislation that Congress passed," Wolf said of his amendment Wednesday. "Over successive administrations this critical position has not been treated with the seniority it deserves and this revised language will help rectify this problem."
In addition to moving the IRF ambassador-at-large office and expanding the position's list of responsibilities, the proposed amendment will also require every foreign service officer to take part in religious freedom training connected to USCIRF.
Additionally, State Secretary Clinton will be called on to issue a one-time report to Congress on the best uses of foreign assistance to promote religious freedom and religious engagement.