(Photo: REUTERS / Joshua Roberts)
Time is running out for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to take action on saving the American government's signature religious freedom agency.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was launched in 1998 to focus on America's foreign policy concerning faith practices overseas. It has traditionally served as watchdog for religious persecution in other countries and advises the president, Congress and the State Department on strategies for halting it.
As reported by Doug Carlson of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the bipartisan commission is currently staring down a stoppage of its own. Since early fall, the interfaith group has lingered in limbo between life and death.
USCIRF's governing mandate was initially set for expiration in September, only to receive salvation from an overall government resolution on the budget that extended its shelf-life two months. Now nearing its Nov. 18 finish line, USCIRF has received House approval but lingers in a Senate seemingly disinterested in supporting it.
"People should be free to worship or not worship God to the dictates of their own conscience," said Dr. Barrett Duke, ERLC's vice president for public policy and research. "Losing USCIRF would send a bad signal to some of the world's worst violators of religious freedom."
Duke said USCIRF's mandate renewal had stumbled in the Senate Committee given its part in a larger bill. As such, he said other portions of the bill placed it in jeopardy. Calls and emails to the committee were not returned by press time.
Ryan Morgan, International Christian Concern's advocacy officer, said if USCIRF went under it would severely hamper the efforts of his organization and others like it. USCIRF's government role, he said, gives it a unique advantage in advancing religious liberty at home and abroad.
"If religious freedom isn't important in America, it won't be important elsewhere either," Morgan said. "People around the world watch us for a double-standard. Our influence does affect other countries' domestic policies."
Few know this better than Nina Shea, the only USCIRF commissioner to serve on its nine-member board since its start. Shea said her work with USCIRF had exposed her to persecution in Egypt, China, Sudan and a myriad of other nations. She said the work the commission does in turn help religious people all over the globe practice what they preach.
"This is a question of whether or not our sun is setting," Shea said. "There was a view after the Cold War that trade issues dominated our foreign policy to the detriment of human rights issues. Even today, religious freedom is considered unimportant or too sensitive a topic for foreign policy. Despite this, it's the bedrock issue for peace, human rights and security."
Regardless of the outcome, Shea said the commission's budget would dip below previous operating levels. The group could get a second chance, she said, with a $3 million budget, down from $4 million and five commissioners instead of nine, should its reauthorization pass. Even then, she said, USCIRF could better serve the faithful with less funding rather than fading away.
"The percentage an organization like USCIRF takes up is a small, small portion of our GDP," Morgan agreed. "Even if something is passed USCIRF may shrink. That's still better than letting it disappear entirely."