Bill extending religious protections passes

Bill extending religious protections passes

NJ Rep. Smith authors legislation in reaction to increase in persecution

An infant being carried before his circumcision at an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin in 2013.
An infant being carried before his circumcision at an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin in 2013.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ Dist. 4) was the author of a bill unanimously approved by the U.S. House of Representatives that would extend religious protections to advocates of circumcision and ritual slaughter as well as atheists, addressing what its sponsors describe as an increase in religious persecution in recent years.

The bill, passed May 16, would broaden the definition of “violations of religious freedom” in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the persecution of advocates of male circumcision and ritual animal slaughter. Atheists would become a new protected class.

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which moves to the Senate for consideration, was named for the retired Republican congressman from Virginia, a longtime champion of human rights who authored the 1998 law.

“The world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis of international religious freedom,” said Smith in a statement. This is a crisis that “continues to create millions of victims; a crisis that undermines liberty, prosperity, and peace; a crisis that poses a direct challenge to the U.S. interests in the Middle East, Russia, China, and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.

“A robust religious freedom diplomacy is necessary to advance U.S. interests in stability, security, and economic development,” said Smith. “Where there is more religious freedom, there is more economic freedom, more women’s empowerment, more political stability, more freedom of speech, and less terrorism.”

There have been increasing calls in recent years in northern European countries for an end to circumcision and ritual slaughter, spurred in part by anti-Muslim hostility, U.S. government and European Jewish officials have said.

The bill’s tier system for how well or poorly countries protect religious freedom would be similar to the one used in the annual State Department report on human trafficking. That report is influential, and countries seeking the good graces of the United States strive to improve their ranking by cracking down on the practice.

Smith is the chair of the House subcommittee on human rights, and as a cochair of the Helsinki Committee, the congressional panel that monitors human rights overseas, he has focused attention on the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. He has held more than a dozen hearings on religious freedom, including one on Oct. 15 entitled “The Global Crisis of Religious Freedom.”

Smith’s office, announcing the passage of the bill, headlined the statement “Combating Persecution of Christians and Anti-Semitism,” although many of its protections would extend in the current climate to moderate Sunni Muslims and non-Sunni Muslim sects in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the bill’s lead Democratic sponsor, said in the same statement that the bill would “better address the religious freedom and violent extremism problems being experienced in the 21st century.”

The bill integrates the 1998 law’s protections into U.S. national security priorities, mandating that the ambassador at large for religious freedom — currently Rabbi David Saperstein, a veteran Reform movement leader — report directly to the secretary of state. It also adds new requirements for presidential reporting to Congress on religious freedom violations and training for diplomats in identifying violations of religious freedoms.

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