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U.S. religious liberty commission stalled by appointment process

WASHINGTON (BP)–The independent panel established by the Congress two years ago to monitor religious freedom has encountered delays in the appointment of its nine voting members, Newsroom-online.com reported May 23.

The two-year terms of members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expired May 14, and since then only two have been reappointed. Three members of the commission, established by a 1998 act of Congress, are selected by the president, with three others selected by Senate leaders and three by House of Representatives leaders.

Commission spokesman Lawrence Goodrich told Newsroom that the panel cannot make further policy decisions until it has a quorum of six members. “We’ve been pointing it out since at least March that May 14 was fast approaching, and the only appointing authority who got the appointment made before the actual expiration of the term was the Speaker of the House.”

Speaker Dennis J. Hasert, Republican from Illinois, reappointed Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington, a human rights group, on May 14. The USCIRF announced Wednesday that Michael K. Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School in Washington, has been reappointed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Republican from Mississippi.

Goodrich said he does not know how long the appointment process might take. “We have been in frequent contact with all of the appointing authorities, and they all assure us that they take the matter seriously and are working on it,” he said.

(At least one news report May 23 noted that Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is among the potential appointees.)

Goodrich said that until the panel is named, the nearly 20-member staff will continue to monitor religious freedom on a daily basis and prepare for the new commission. “We’ve just gone through our annual report process, and four of the outgoing commissioners are testifying about it tomorrow [May 24) before the House International Relations Committee,” Goodrich said. “But we need a commission soon so we can get our work plans set up for the coming year and get going on the various things we need to do until next May 1.”

The commission’s second annual report, released April 30, made policy recommendations to the U.S. government regarding 10 countries in which religious freedom is considered to be at risk. In addition to the countries included in its 2000 report — China, Russia and Sudan — the panel reported on India, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Goodrich said there are five commissioners, including Shea and Young, willing to be reappointed. The others are chairman Elliott Abrams, vice chairman Firuz Kazemzadeh and Justice Charles Z. Smith. Abrams is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington; Kazemzadeh senior adviser for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States; and Smith is a justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

Other commissioners were Laila Al-Marayati, founding member and past president of the Muslim Women’s League in Los Angeles; Archbishop Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington; John R. Bolton, until recently senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy in Washington.; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.

Goodrich said McCarrick, who was Archbishop of Newark when appointed and since then has become Washington’s archbishop and a cardinal, does not wish to be reappointed. Bolton is now an undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration and cannot be reappointed because government employees are not eligible to serve, Goodrich said.

Goodrich said there is not an intentional effort to make the commission representative of America’s faith communities. “It’s important to have people of different faiths on the committee, but it would be, I believe, unconstitutional to appoint somebody solely on the basis of their religion,” he said. “There is not a Catholic slot, or an evangelical slot, or a Muslim slot.”

Al-Marayati, Kazemzadeh and Smith were appointed in 1999 by former President Bill Clinton.

The commission’s most visible position, the non-voting ambassador-at-large, has been vacant since September when Robert Seiple resigned to start a think tank in Philadelphia. The position, according to the USCIRF, is “charged with promoting religious freedom worldwide, promoting reconciliation in those areas where conflict has been implemented along religious lines, and making sure that this issue is woven into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy.”

“We are very anxious for that position to be filled,” Goodrich said. Possible candidates that have been mentioned, Goodrich said, are Abrams and John Hanford, a congressional fellow in the office of Sen. Richard Lugar, R.-Ind. Hanford participated in writing the legislation for the International Religious Freedom Act.

Goodrich believes that the commission is fulfilling its aim of helping make religious freedom more of a policy concern, pointing to its part in making human rights in Sudan a higher priority. But he emphasized that the commission is an experiment that started from scratch only two years ago. “I think this is a long-term process,” he said. “It takes a while to turn the ship, but I think in the first two years the commission has had quite a bit of impact.”
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.

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