A religious freedom commission gets an overhaul

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: A religious freedom commission gets an overhaul.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Two decades ago President Bill Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its aim is to advocate for religious freedom on behalf of people persecuted because of their faith. Among other things, the law created a nine-member, bipartisan commission. It’s known by the acronym USCIRF. It stands for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. U-S-C-I-R-F, USCIRF.

REICHARD: The commission is government funded. But it’s set up to be independent. Meaning — lawmakers created it to provide recommendations to Congress, the State Department, and the president, all unfettered by politics.

EICHER: The commission has elevated religious freedom issues abroad, but has it been unfettered by politics?

Not so much.

One example came in 2011. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin held up USCIRF reauthorization because he was trying to force the House to buy a prison in his state. If you think those two items are completely unrelated, you’d be right about that.

REICHARD: This month, the commission got a raft of new appointments. Here to talk about it with me is WORLD Radio’s J.C. Derrick. He has covered USCIRF quite a lot in recent years. J.C., what can you tell us about these new appointees?

J.C. DERRICK, MANAGING EDITOR: Well, several members were term-limited this month, so we knew there would be some turnover. But we didn’t know just how much. Last month Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appointed Gayle Manchin to the commission, and that was a surprise for two reasons. The first is that in doing so he declined to re-appoint Sandra Jolley. She’d been one of the leaders in advocating for American pastor Andrew Brunson and was even in the courtroom for his trial two weeks ago.

The second reason it was a surprise is that Manchin has no prior experience in international or religious freedom issues. The 1998 law creating USCIRF actually says appointees should have expertise and experience in relevant fields—and it specifically names foreign affairs, human rights, and international law. It doesn’t appear Manchin checks any of those boxes.

However, she does have something else going for her: She’s the wife of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. That obviously makes her controversial in the eyes of some. But in talking to religious freedom advocates, there are some folks who believe Gayle Manchin’s status as a senator’s wife could elevate the influence of the commission.

Alright, and then President Trump made his three appointments last week?

DERRICK: That’s right. And that’s significant in itself, because he let one seat remain vacant for a year. After an Obama appointee rolled off last May, President Trump didn’t put forward anyone to replace him. But last week the White House announced three appointees. The first is Nadine Maenza, a top aide to former presidential candidate Rick Santorum. And then the other two are members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory board—a Christian PR guy named Johnnie Moore, and Gary Bauer, the former president of the Family Research Council. Meanwhile the current president of the Family Research Council also joined the commission. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed Tony Perkins.

MR: So is it typical to have both parties putting party loyalists on this commission?

DERRICK: Well, not this many at one time. It’s not uncommon to see, for example, for presidential allies make it onto the commission, but this is a different level than we’ve seen. Based on what I know of these appointees, it seems most of them care about this issue, but that’s very different than having expertise in the field. Over the years this commission has had some real titans of international religious freedom advocacy — people like Nina Shea and Elliott Abrams and Katrina Lantos Swett.

Some of these new members have shown a serious reluctance to criticize anything the Trump administration does. So it will be interesting to see if they can set aside their political opinions to maintain the independence this commission needs to have to be effective. Lives like Andrew Brunson’s really do hang in the balance.

MR: What does all this political maneuvering say about the commission?

DERRICK: Well, on the one hand, it’s not good when the commission operates with a vacant seat for a year — really for no reason. And at the same time, the fact that we continue to see these efforts to influence the commission, I think, indicates it is making a difference. Just as foreign countries don’t like it when the commission calls them out for these abuses, similarly, American administrations don’t like it either. This commission is like the conscience of our government and in many cases it’s the only entity—or at least the first one—taking up the cause of persecuted individuals.

Okay, J.C. Derrick is WORLD Radio’s managing editor. J.C., thanks for this update.

DERRICK: You’re welcome, Mary.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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