Tuesday, November 26, 2019

USCIRF Reauthorization Mired In Controversy

Under current law, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom terminated on Sept. 19, 2019. Nevertheless, USCIRF continues to operate, presumably with the assumption that Congress will enact reauthorizing legislation. A bipartisan reauthorization bill (S. 2503) was introduced on Sept. 18, one day before the current termination date.  Despite its bipartisan backing, the bill, which has not moved forward, has proven to be so controversial that USCIRF Commissioner Kristina Arriaga resigned in protest over it.

Here is some of AP's account (Nov. 21) of the controversy:
The bill also would ask the commission to review “the abuse of religion to justify human rights violations” — a responsibility not defined in more detail — and restrict commissioners from using their federal title when they speak as private citizens. Additionally, commissioners would have to report to Congress on international travel paid for by sources outside their families or the government.
In a capital often dominated by partisan polarization, those proposed changes created a rare division: senators in both parties seeking increased oversight, and commissioners in both parties balking....
[S]ome of the changes Arriaga opposes were aimed at ensuring commissioners — who serve as unpaid volunteers — don’t misrepresent the religious freedom body while speaking as private individuals. One commissioner, Trump evangelical adviser Johnnie Moore, has met twice in the past year with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose kingdom’s long-standing restraint of religious freedom has drawn criticism from the commission.
Christianity Today (Nov. 25) says that there is tension between USCIRF Commissioners and USCIRF staff.  USCIRF played an active role in freeing American pastor Andrew Brunson from imprisonment in Turkey. But senior staff had argued that because USCIRF was limited in its role to international religious freedom, it was not permitted to advocate for Brunson, an American.  CT went on to describe its understanding of the issues raised by the proposed reauthorization legislation:
Among the bill’s proposed reforms, the terms of all commissioners would expire at the same time, yielding 100 percent turnover every time new commissioners were appointed; commissioners would be prohibited from identifying themselves with USCIRF at public speaking engagements they performed as private citizens; commissioners would be required to make annual reports to Congress on any international travel funded by someone other than the commissioner, a relative, or the US government; and commissioners would be required to keep records of all official communications.
Another proposed change [is] ... expansion of USCIRF’s mission to include monitoring the “abuse of religion to justify human rights violations.” That language, Arriaga said, could empower future USCIRF chairmen to “criticize conservative Christian congregations that will not marry same-sex couples,” target Jews for practicing circumcision (a practice some critics have called child abuse), or monitor religious groups that don’t ordain women.
Former USCIRF commissioner Richard Land told CT the proposed changes would “neuter” the commission and limit and pool of religious liberty experts willing to serve.