Washington D.C., Nov 22, 2019 / 04:02 pm (CNA).- With the current authorization for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expiring this year, proposed changes to the independent panel have sparked controversy.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government commission established in 1998 under the International Religious Freedom Act. It works to monitor the state of religious freedom abroad and make recommendations to Congress, the president and the Secretary of State about policies to advance religious freedom.
USCRIF must be periodically reauthorized by Congress. Its current authorization expires this year.
A bill to reauthorize the commission for four years, with an additional $1 million for the group’s annual budget, was introduced in September. It proposed a single three-year term limit for commissioners, as well as requirements for the group to report regularly to Congress, a change that is described as working toward transparency and accountability.
However, the bill has been met with pushback from current commissioners, who say it would compromise their mission.
Last week, commissioner Kristina Arriaga announced her resignation. Arriaga had served since 2016 and was set to be on the commission until May 2020.
Arriaga told The Christian Post the proposed legislation “would gut USCIRF by changing its mission and burdening commissioners with the very kind of innovation-killing bureaucracy they were designed to fight.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she voiced concern over what she saw as Congressional moves that would impede the group’s ability to function.
“Believing that a bureaucracy can’t be defeated by creating another bureaucracy, Congress ensured the nine USCIRF commissioners were unpaid, independent volunteer voices selected from both political parties,” she said, stressing the independent nature of the commission and its ability to take “direct action” as key factors enabling it to be successful in carrying out its work.
However, she warned, the new legislative proposal would alter the role of USCIRF to include monitoring the “abuse of religion to justify human rights violations.”
“This creates an opening for the commission to enter ideological fights over, for example, sex segregation at religious services, circumcision or same-sex relationships,” Arriaga said. “Part of the reason for USCIRF’s success is avoiding these divisive theological fights and focusing on clear-cut cases of religious freedom.”
She also criticized proposals to create new reporting requirements and to restrict the ways in which USCIRF commissioners use their title when speaking in a personal capacity.
The bill has been pulled amid the controversy, and lawmakers must now work to craft new legislation extending the mandate of USCIRF if the body is to remain in existence.
In a Nov. 15 tweet, Senator Marco Rubio defended the legislation, saying that if it were up to him, he would approve a simple extension of USCRIF’s mandate. But the changes are necessary as part of a compromise to win Democratic support, he said, noting that unless Congress acts to reauthorize the commission, it will disappear.
Commissioner Nadine Maenza stressed that the independent nature of the group over the years has allowed it the freedom to criticize policies enacted by all administrations, without devolving into partisan squabbles.
“We’ve lasted for 20 years because there’s no daylight between Republicans and Democrats on our mission and mandate,” Maenza said, according to the New York Times. “The minute there is, and one side can be pitted against the other side … the loser will be religious freedom.”
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