On the Hill: International Religious Freedom Bill Might Still Get a Vote

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Recently, the American Humanist Association signed on to a coalition letter authored by a number of liberal, conservative, religious, and nontheistic organizations supporting the passage of an international religious freedom bill that would help protect theistic and nontheistic communities around the world.

The AHA worked with the House Foreign Affairs committee, including both Democratic and Republican staffs, to ensure that the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act included the category of nontheists and adequately addressed concerns by the nontheistic community. The act, also known as HR 1150, does several things, including giving the president and the State Department new political tools through increased funding, strengthening the standing of the International Religious Freedom Office and the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and creating a “Special Watch List.” A nation that stays on the list for three consecutive years based on poor treatment and violations of its citizens’ religious freedom, specifically those from marginalized religions or no religion, are downgraded to “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) status. The legislation also requires the designation of violent non-state actors who work to weaken religious freedom as “Entities of Particular Concern” and directs the president to enforce sanctions on individuals who carry out or order religious restrictions. This is especially relevant today given the murders of atheists in Bangladesh, including American citizen Dr. Avijit Roy, by gangs of religious extremists.

The AHA convinced both the Republican and Democratic staffers on the committee to include language that not only protects minority theistic communities, but nontheistic minorities as well. For example, the act begins: “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and nontheistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” The act condemns “specific targeting of nontheists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs” and any attempts to forcibly compel “nonbelievers or nontheists to recant their beliefs or to convert.”

This bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this year through a voice vote. The Senate version of the bill, S. 2878, is currently sitting in the Senate Foreign Relations committee awaiting a markup before proceeding to the Senate floor for a vote, and will eventually be delivered to President Obama for his signature.

Legislation supporting international religious freedom is one of the few issues that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, and the need for action on this issue is ever present. As the coalition letter notes, “Assaults on religious freedom around the world are systemic and growing. In fact, the current state of international religious freedom is one of deepening crisis—according to the Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion, 74 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a high or very high overall level of restriction on religion. We must work to create a context where people can peacefully live with their deepest differences.”

Whether or not Congress decides to act on this important bill during the lame duck session remains to be seen, but the coalition of advocacy organizations supporting this bill, including the American Humanist Association, will continue to press for its passage so as to protect the fundamental right to hold personal, religious, or nontheistic beliefs without the fear of governmental or societal reprisals.