WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was preparing to shut down, Congress reauthorized it for three years, but with reduced funding and fewer commissioners.
The Senate voted Dec. 13 and the House Dec. 16 to approve amendments to an appropriations bill that reauthorized the commission. But the commission's yearly budget will be decreased from more than $4 million to $3 million and the number of commissioners will go from nine to two.
Speaking to a House subcommittee Nov. 17, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., who served on the commission from 2003 to 2007, urged Congress to keep the rights-monitoring agency alive and said its work must be given higher priority in foreign policy.
In his testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Bishop Ramirez said that in practice, religious freedom discussions seldom make it into the public record in dialogues with key countries.
"The issue may have been raised in private, but there needs to be a more overt recognition of the importance that the U.S. places on protection of religious freedom," he said. "Otherwise, it may appear that our nation is going through the motions of satisfying a congressional mandate, but not following up by making religious freedom an integral part of the foreign policy decision-making process."
At the same hearing, Leonard Leo, current chairman, said disbanding the commission "would be a tragic blunder. It would signal to the world that the United States is retreating from the cause of religious freedom."
The commission was established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The law also established the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, whose staff monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide.
The commission is an independent, bipartisan government agency charged with reviewing violations of religious freedom throughout the world and making appropriate policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress.
Other Catholic leaders who have served on the commission include Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, now retired archbishop of Washington; Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y.; and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, now head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
In a statement after the House vote, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., called the commission "a beacon of hope for those whose most fundamental liberties are under assault."
Wolf noted that a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries with significant restrictions on religious freedom.
"The commission's work is of utmost importance," he said. "It speaks plainly about religious freedom abuses wherever they occur in ways that the State Department can rarely muster, during Republican and Democratic administrations alike."