Religious freedom bill supported by ERLC ready for President’s signature

December 16, 2016

In a quiet House Chamber during a sleepy week on Capitol Hill, a very important piece of bipartisan legislation passed a final Congressional hurdle. The law now sits in queue for President Obama’s signature. The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (“the IRF Act”) significantly upgrades the State Department’s ability and mandate to advocate on behalf of persecuted people of all faiths or no faith all around the world. The Office of International Religious Freedom and its Ambassador-at-Large will get better tools to support and pressure governments that persecute religious minorities.

Among the most significant updates to the State Department’s advocacy for international religious freedom is the designation of “non-state actors.” When the office was first created the primary persecutors of religious minorities were national governments. Though many of those abuses continue by foreign governments like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, the rise of groups like Boko Haram and ISIS require new methods to identify and confront such persecution.

The IRF Act also requires the development of a training curriculum in the strategic value of international religious freedom and incorporates the training for several levels of Foreign Service officers. Beyond the State Department, the new law requires the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to compile and update a publicly available list of foreign prisoners who they believe are imprisoned, tortured, or otherwise abused due to either their religious beliefs or their advocacy on behalf of persecuted people.

The key players included Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) in the House who were original sponsors of the legislation. In the Senate, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced the companion bill, while Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Bob Corker (R-TN) helped it get through final Senate procedures. Lastly, Speaker Paul Ryan’s office secured a vote by the House of Representatives needed to incorporate late changes by the Senate. In addition to bipartisan support in the midst of an extremely polarized political climate, the IRF Act enjoyed support from across the American religious and ideological spectrum.

There was a great deal of Capitol Hill drama during the bill’s path to success. The pace of movement in Congress and political conflicts over the year-end budget battle (the Continuing Resolution or “CR”) required the ERLC and other advocates remain heavily engaged, keeping in frequent contact with congressional staff to ensure the IRF Act didn’t get lost in the shuffle. Nevertheless, there is a sense on Capitol Hill that had it not been for advocacy in the last week from citizens in Tennessee and Maryland, the legislation may have died simply due to time running out on the Congressional calendar. Such 11th-hour efforts reminded Senators Corker (TN) and Cardin (MD) of a strong desire to see this done. The passage of the IRF Act is a moment that reminds us that basic relationships with elected officials—especially those of local religious voices—matter a great deal when seeing policy ideas all the way through a complex process.

For those who wish to go deeper, an explainer of the IRF Act is available from the ERLC here. If you have further questions about the details of the bill, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter via @mthawk.

Matthew T. Hawkins

Matthew T. Hawkins is a former policy director of the  ERLC. He is presently pursuing a Ph.D. in public theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and serves as chair of The One America Movement, a nonprofit that desires to build a united American society by eliminating toxic polarization. More information … Read More