Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Good Cause, Bad Legislation

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Good Cause, Bad Legislation

Article excerpt

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, passed by Congress just before its October adjournment, raises anew the question of priorities in foreign policy.

The law sets up a complicated scale according to which the United States is supposed to promote religious freedom worldwide. It creates an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large.

This is in addition to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor headed by an assistant secretary of state. This makes religious freedom, which is one human right, equal to democracy and all other human rights. But there's more. For 20-plus years, the State Department has been reporting annually to Congress on human rights in other countries. Now it is to submit a separate report on religious freedom in the same countries. There is also to be a government commission on international religious freedom, and this commission is to submit yet another annual report to Congress (as well as to the president and secretary of state). The law defines two categories of violations of religious freedom. There are "severe violations" and "violations." Severe violations include torture, prolonged detention without charges, or the disappearance of persons. Violations are arbitrary restrictions on the practice or advocacy of religion. All of these things are already on the list of human rights violations. Now, apparently, they count twice if done for religious reasons. There is a graduated list of 15 actions for the president to take in response to violations. These range from a private protest to cancellation of a state visit. In the case of severe violations, the actions range from cutting economic assistance to ending US procurement in the offending country. Religious freedom has deep roots in the United States. Some of the first settlers (Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland) came looking for it. Religion is listed first among the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Religious freedom is so embedded in American life that it will always be an important part of American foreign policy, whether or not the law requires it. …

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