International Religious Freedom Battles Heat Up

On Friday, the Senate voted to confirm Rabbi David Saperstein to the post of Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom by a vote of 62-35. The post has been vacant since the 2013 departure of Suzan Johnson Cook, who faced criticism for her lack of experience when she was first nominated in 2010, and was widely seen as ineffectual in the role.

Liberal Jewish groups are praising Saperstein’s confirmation. “He has a deep respect for all religions and the separation of religion from government, and will bring his keen sense of fairness and justice to the world, which needs his guidance and sense of diplomacy,” Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said in a statement.

Conservative reaction, though, is mixed. Mark Silk ponders why 34 Republicans voted against confirming Saperstein, who has long led the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center and is a fixture in Washington. On the one hand, Silk notes, Saperstein’s religious freedom credentials are impeccable, as he helped shepherd an unlikely coalition of religious and religious freedom groups to support the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and served as the first chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act. On the other, though, Saperstein is one of Washington’s most prominent religious progressives, supporting reproductive and LGBT rights, as well as criticizing this summer’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case (which was decided under RFRA, the statute he championed).

Among the 11 Republicans who voted to confirm Saperstein were Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. “I cannot avoid the suspicion,” Silk writes, “that the principle motivating the three GOP senators with 2016 presidential aspirations was: Thou shalt not alienate well-heeled Jewish donors by voting against a Jewish nominee.”

Saperstein, known for his skill in navigating partisan divides, will face a long-simmering conflict between the State Department and USCIRF. The Commission, which is praised both by religious conservatives and secular organizations for its advocacy for persecuted religious minorities (including nonbelievers) around the world, has also been criticized for being too focused on Christian persecution, for championing a partisan agenda, and frequently working at cross purposes to the State Department. It is often publicly critical of the State Department for, in the Commission’s view, the Department’s failure to act to adequately protect religious freedom.

According to a March 2013 General Accountability Office report, the authorizing legislation “does not prescribe how State and USCIRF should interact and coordinate their efforts.” As a result, “State and USCIRF have at times conveyed inconsistent information to foreign-government officials on  U.S. foreign policy, creating tensions that State has had to mitigate.”

In addition, the Commission also has not resolved a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by an applicant, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, claiming that it rescinded a job offer because she is Muslim—an odd predicament for an entity charged with advocating for religious freedom.

The political scientist Beth Shakman Hurd has called for the elimination of USCIRF. Earlier this year Hurd told me that reducing analysis of some of the world’s most violent hotspots to questions of religion or religious freedom is “counterproductive and dangerous.” In such acts of “violence and discrimination” said Hurd, there is “almost always a complex story behind them.” She advocated instead for attempts “to understand what’s happening more carefully,” instead of, for example, “rushing in to claim that Christian persecution is on the rise.”

Politically speaking, though, proposing the elimination of USCIRF would be a non-starter. No elected official would risk being seen as “against” religious freedom.

Even attempts to reform USCIRF have met with stiff opposition. USCIRF was up for reauthorization this year, and Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, this summer introduced legislation that would have included “important reforms to the Commission to encourage bipartisanship, enhance coordination with the State Department, and improve Congressional oversight.” Durbin had attempted to reform USCIRF during the last reauthorization, in 2011, and was accused by conservatives of attempting to dismantle it. The anti-Muslim activist Frank Gaffney even went so far as to accuse the Obama administration of “working behind the scenes to do as its Islamist friends have demanded by shutting down the USCIRF.” Gaffney baselessly claimed the administration had enlisted Durbin because he “is not only perfectly placed to do the deed stealthily. He has his own close associations with a number of the Brotherhood’s top fronts and operatives in his home state of Illinois, in Washington and elsewhere across the country.”

The “cromnibus” spending bill that passed this weekend included just a one year reauthorization for USCIRF, after a battle in the Senate over Durbin’s proposed reforms, which had included a proposed three-year reauthorization.

USCIRF has claimed it has a different role than the State Department, justifying its public criticisms. At the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Atlanta in September, USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett told reporters, “if you are looking for the gold standard” for understanding which countries are most in violation of religious freedom around the world, “go to the USCIRF annual report, because we call it like we see it.” (In its reports, USCIRF designates nations as “countries of particular concern,” and condemning the State Department if it fails to critique the same countries it has targeted.)

Swett said she is sometimes “critical of the State Department” but understands that “they have a very big portfolio of concerns,” with religious freedom just one piece of it. USCIRF, she repeated, has “the luxury of having a single mission and a single portfolio. Not to sound too self-serving and too self-congratulatory, but I really think it is the case that USCIRF represents the gold standard if you want to know what’s going on globally in terms of international religious freedom.”

With just a one-year authorization for USCIRF, these conflicts will soon be revisited.

  • As someone who works with interfaith issues regularly, this article brings up some very interesting points, and in the climate of US politics this is a very dangerous situation. The influence of the Religious Right in our government and the pushing of its agenda taints the work the State Department does in this area. The Commission on the other hand also has its agenda, and seems to be acting in accordance with that agenda. But when countries start meddling in the religious freedoms of other nations, where the separation of church and state may not be as clear as it could be, we run the risk of becoming religious bullies, especially when we have a faction in this nation that believe that the entire world should be evangelical Christian, thereby denying the religious freedoms of those who are not Christian.

    I run into this every day here in my town where my interfaith church is being denied its rights by the three evangelical churches here, with everything from blocking notices about church meetings posted around town being taken down to actual verbal attacks against my church and slanders about me by local ministers and their church members. Religious freedom must be given to all, and must never be used to force one religion on people who are not interested.

    When we allow evangelicals to determine State Department policies of turning a blind eye to their activities in other nations, then we have crossed the line between church and state. Religious freedom should not be addressed in other nations by the US when we are so willing to deny it to our own citizens. Then we become hypocrites and the world sees us for what we are. If the Commission is doing its job properly, then it should only focus on the activities within the US until it can clean up our act as an example of true interfaith religious freedom for the world, and the State Department should stay out of religious freedom issues entirely in other nations.