On the Hill: Religious Freedom Ambassador Awaiting Senate Confirmation

While the majority of the American Humanist Association’s advocacy work is focused on domestic issues, at the federal and state level, the organization has participated over the last few years in the effort to ensure religious freedom for all human beings, regardless of their country of origin or current residence. As part of that effort, senior AHA staff members have met routinely with the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) and with the former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook.

These meetings have been a productive opportunity for us to educate our government about cases of discrimination, either by foreign governments or the societies they are responsible for, against nonbelievers. Unfortunately, the majority of the work that the State Department’s IRF office does is limited to cases of discrimination against minority theistic religious sects, which leaves atheist prisoners of conscience like Mubarak Bala without the assistance of the world’s most influential democracy. Under Ambassador Cook, the State Department had started to address these cases and engage the nonreligious community on ways that nonbelievers around the world could have their right to religious freedom, which includes the right to not believe in a god or gods, to be protected.

Ambassador Cook retired from her position almost a year ago, which left her office without a director and in the process raised concerns from advocates for religious freedom that the United States would take a step back from working on this important issue. Thankfully, President Obama recently announced that he was appointing Rabbi David Saperstein, who currently serves as the director of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to fill the position. Saperstein would be the first non-Christian to hold the position since its creation, and while the AHA would have liked to have seen a nontheist serve in the position we are excited to see that an ally such as Saperstein, who works with the AHA in the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, can do if he is confirmed by the Senate.

The United States has a leading role to play in ensuring that all religious and non-religious minorities have the right to practice their beliefs or abstain from doing so without the fear of punishment by government minions or discrimination from fellow citizens. Religious freedom is truly one of the most important human rights, and we at the AHA believe that Rabbi Saperstein has both the knowledge and the desire to affect serious change on this issue if given a chance.