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BY CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY
Washington D.C. — The chairman of a federal commission that promotes religious freedom warned that if Congress does not reauthorize the group by this week, international results could be “catastrophic.”
Chairman Leonard Leo called it “absolutely shameful” that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has still not been reauthorized after months of discussion.
Leo told CNA on Dec. 9 that a failure to reauthorize the commission would send the message that the U.S. has “downgraded the importance of religious freedom in our foreign policy.”
Funding for the commission was initially set to expire at the end of September but received multiple brief extensions — including one that was part of a “minibus” spending bill signed into law on Nov. 18 — that have allowed it to continue its work.
However, the commission’s latest extension will expire on Dec. 16, which will cause it to shut down completely if Congress does not renew its funding and reauthorize its mission.
Although the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that would extend the commission’s funding for two more years, the process has been tied up in the Senate since September.
It was initially reported that a single anonymous senator had placed a “hold” on the bill, preventing it from coming to a vote, for undisclosed reasons.
That senator has now been identified as Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). An individual involved in the situation said that Senator Durbin has put a hold on the funding until federal money is approved to buy a state prison in Illinois, which he claims will bring money and jobs to the area.
As the Senate majority whip, Senator Durbin is the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate.
The Obama administration told Fox News on Dec. 8 that it is working with Congress to reauthorize the commission, but with just a week before the Dec. 16 deadline, commission staff members are beginning to wrap up their operations.
Leo acknowledged the possibility that another temporary extension for the commission could be passed as part of an omnibus budget resolution.
But ultimately, he explained, the commission needs to be reauthorized since it cannot operate effectively with the threat of being shut down constantly lingering.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is the “only commission of its kind in the world,” Leo said. He explained that by identifying problems, reporting on them and serving as a watchdog, the commission has both directly and indirectly had a positive impact on countries around the world since it was created in 1998.
The commission advises the president, secretary of state and congress on how to bolster religious freedom overseas.
It presents an annual report on religious freedom across the globe and recommends that certain countries which tolerate “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty be designated as “countries of particular concern.”
If the commission is forced to close its doors, said Leo, other countries that have been considering forming similar commissions may be dissuaded.
It would send a dangerous message to countries that abuse human rights, he added, showing them that religious freedom is “not a priority” for the United States any longer.