Religious Freedom Commission Prepares to Shut Its Doors

December 7, 2011 - 5:38 AM

Leonard Leo

USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo presents an international religious freedom award to Pakistani Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, in Sept. 2009. Bhatti, the only Christian member of the federal cabinet, was assassinated in Islamabad in March 2011 by gunmen who linked the killing to his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. (Photo: USCIRF)

(CNSNews.com) – Ten days before its temporary authorization is due to expire, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Tuesday moved ahead with preparations for a permanent shutdown, while expressing hope that its tenure may yet be extended.

The USCIRF’s nine commissioners adopted a resolution outlining the steps the body is obliged to take to prepare for “orderly and financially solvent closure,” saying it had been informed by the Government Services Administration of the need to do so in accordance with applicable federal laws and regulations.

The measures include preserving and archiving all commission records, determining where they will be kept, and making arrangements to transfer them once the USCIRF expires.

Since its creation under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the USCIRF has served as an independent body advising the executive and legislative branches on promoting religious freedom around the world as a foreign policy priority – not always seeing eye-to-eye with the State Department in the process.

Its work has won praise around the world – not least of all from victims of religious persecution – and numerous religious freedom advocacy groups have voiced deep concern about its future.

The House of Representatives last September passed a bill authorizing the USCIRF for another two years, a 391-21 vote reflecting the importance members of both parties ascribe to the promotion of religious freedom.

But the measure has been held up in the Senate, the subject of a hold attributed in published reports to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Two continuing resolutions to fund the federal government, passed by Congress in October and November, temporarily covered USCIRF authorization. The latter continuing resolution expires on Dec. 16.

In its resolution Tuesday, the USCIRF spelled out the situation it finds itself in, stating that it will shut down on Dec. 16 “in the absence of either enactment of reauthorizing legislation by the Senate and the House of Representatives that is duly signed by the President of the United States by that date, or, enactment of provisions specifically extending USCIRF's operations in another continuing resolution or other measures, should any of these be adopted by the Congress.”

The resolution was sent to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress. In a brief cover letter, the nine commissioners, who are unpaid and nominated variously by the president and congressional leaders, expressed regret at having to bring the matter to their attention.

“It remains our most fervent hope that the Commission will be reauthorized, so that it can continue its vital work in advising the President, the Congress, and the Secretary of State,” the note said.

“The Commission expresses its sincere appreciation to all those who have supported, and remain supportive of, the continuation and reauthorization of the Commission’s mandate and work.”

Earlier, USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo urged lawmakers not to let the commission die, saying that doing so “would signal to the world that the United States is retreating from the cause of religious freedom.”