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Twenty years ago today, October 27, 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act was signed into law.
The Act established both an ambassador at large for international religious freedom in the Department of State and a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. I was privileged to serve on the Commission twice, and to chair it in 2000-2001.
Why did Congress pass the Act? There was a widespread view both that violations of religious of religious freedom were rampant in the world, and that the U.S. government was paying too little attention to those crimes. Many in Congress and in religious organizations felt the State Department was slow in calling out violations of religious freedom when it was far quicker to criticize, for example, violations of press freedom or freedom of speech. This was often attributed to mistaken views that defending religious freedom was somehow a violation of the separation of church and state, and to secularist views thought to be held by many in the Department.
Twenty years later, the Act has not eliminated religious persecution around the globe. China’s vast repression of Christians, Uighur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists, or Iran’s fierce persecution of the Baha’i, are terrible proof of that. But the Act did institutionalize reporting on violations of religious freedom in the State Department—which now issues annual reports on religious freedom and whose religious freedom office under the ambassador at large has perhaps two dozen staff—and in U.S. embassies. It certainly elevated attention given to this critical issue, and largely killed the bizarre claim that trying to protect religious freedom was somehow constitutionally suspect. And in the Commission, which has its own staff independent of the Department of State, it established a voice that need not balance various U.S. foreign policy goals and has the sole duty to tell the truth about violations of religious freedom. If the problem was inadequate attention to religious freedom by the United States government, the Act was indeed the cure.
Much legislation is soon forgotten, or wrong-headed, or parochial in intention and effect. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 was true to our nation’s history and our deepest beliefs, and continues to remind all who serve in our government that protecting and advancing “the first freedom” must be a goal of our foreign policy.