WASHINGTON – Both President's George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been inconsistent in their obligations to fulfill the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, argued in his Leland Award Lecture on Religious Liberty. The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission presented George the award on Friday for his advocacy for religious liberty.
Under IRFA, George noted, the executive branch is supposed to conduct an annual review of religious freedom around the globe and designate nations that engage in "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom" as "countries of particular concern." Once they receive that designation, sanctions can be placed upon them for religious freedom violations.
George is now chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was created by IRFA to make policy recommendations to Congress, the secretary of state and the president.
Under Bush, George recalled, the review process continued as the law required during the first term, but Bush "let the process fall off track in the second term." During the Obama presidency, the review has only been conducted once, in 2011.
Presidents have a responsibility to faithfully execute laws passed by Congress, but the requirements of IRFA have not been fulfilled, George complained.
"It's the president's solemn duty to see to it that the law is faithfully executed. It's not an option for this president, it's not an option for any president. It's his duty to do it."
In addition to failing to conduct the annual review, George added, Obama allowed religious freedom sanctions against Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan to expire.
George did praise the Obama administration for taking "a number of positive steps," such as establishing a new working group, a new faith-based office, and a new strategy on religious freedom. But none of those efforts "address the question of how to stop the worst religious freedom offenders from persecuting people, from burning people's churches, from killing them, in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Iran, in North Korea."
George also expressed concern that Christians in America are not speaking out enough about the growing persecution of Christians globally. Christians should be concerned about the persecution of any religious group, or the persecution of nonbelievers, he said, but he has been especially surprised that Christians have been so silent as fellow Christians have suffered.
"We have a duty to speak up. Yes, for everyone, but everyone includes Christians too. It's not special pleading for Christians to take cognizance of the fact that fellow Christians are among the persecuted," he said.
In addition to his plea to implement IRFA, George used the lecture to ask Obama to withdraw his administration's birth control mandates, which violate the conscience of certain religious employers.
"The first and most important way the president of the United States can promote religious freedom abroad," he said, "is by honoring religious freedom at home.
"I call on President Obama to withdraw the HHS mandates that threaten religious freedom ... and to do so before being compelled to withdraw those mandates by the Supreme Court in lawsuits that are now pending."