FIRST-PERSON: Religious liberty held hostage in the Senate

Last week, the Obama administration issued a memo making the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people “a major element of its foreign policy” — that’s a quote from a Washington Post article. The article noted the president’s concern for discrimination and violence against LGBTs (as they are known).

Coordinating with the memo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission on the issue. Clinton lamented that LGBT people “are arrested, beaten, imprisoned — even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse.”

I believe that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable rights just as our Declaration of Independence says. Neither LGBT people nor anyone else should be singled out for discrimination and persecution. But I can’t help noticing that while President Obama and Secretary Clinton were vigorously defending sexual freedom, religious freedom is being ditched.

The Senate has not reauthorized the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and, unless that changes, the commission will shut down Friday, ending its vital work. The independent, bi-partisan commission monitors religious freedom and makes policy recommendations. The commission is not restrained by diplomatic niceties the same way the State Department often is, and can speak out candidly about violations of religious freedom wherever they may occur. That is, the commission has teeth.

Writing at National Review Online, Nina Shea, a member of the commission and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, credits the commission with clarifying the religious nature of the civil war in Sudan, publicizing Iraq’s persecution of religious minorities including Christians and Jews, and bringing the ongoing plight of Egypt’s Coptic Christians into the spotlight. Shea says USCIRF doggedly pursues persecution whether it’s in China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam or Egypt, “even when the State Department does not.”

In fact, the commission is so successful, writes Shea, that Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and the Philippines are considering creating their own religious liberty commissions based on the U.S. model.

So why is it losing its funding, by Washington’s standards, a paltry $4 million? Politics as usual is the answer. According to an article in Congressional Quarterly, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin is holding the commission hostage to his demand that the federal government purchase and open a prison in his home state of Illinois. Claiming it would create a thousand new jobs and add a billion dollars to the state’s economy, Durbin has decided that if he doesn’t get his way, persecuted religious believers, well, will just have to put up with discrimination, imprisonment, terrorism and death. Apart from being cynical, Durbin’s actions are downright cruel.

Can the commission be saved? Yes, but it will take grassroots contact with your two senators, Sen. Durbin, and the White House. Tell them religious freedom is too precious and too endangered to be a political bargaining chip. Tell them to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.-BP