On National Religious Freedom Day, Obama administration falters in support

As the preeminent fundamental right, religious freedom in the modern world remains tenuous at best in many regions. On National Religious Freedom Day -- today, jan. 16 --  it is important to reflect on the successful instances where beliefs have been protected to the fullest extent but also, and perhaps more importantly, examples of where progress has been severely curtailed due to civil strife, political upheaval or, in the case of the United States, a general lack of forthright effort especially on the international level. If this cornerstone of civilization is to survive, it must be defended in areas where specific religious perspectives are imposed on others. Sadly, the current administration has consistently shown that it in no way is willing to take up this cause.

In several notable cases, the actions of the administration can even be construed as being diametrically opposed to the concept of religious freedom. In 2008, a family of evangelical Christians from Germany sought asylum in the U.S. after the German government threatened to take their children away for violating a law which prevented homeschooling. Asylum was granted in 2010 and the Romeikes believed they had finally escaped to a place where they could teach their children according to the dictates of their minds, hearts, and consciences. However, in a bizarre turn of events, the Obama Administration decided to revoke their asylum in 2012 without provocation or a clear reasoning behind the decision.

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While the case has been referred to the Supreme Court and the administration has been called upon to respond to petitions supporting the Romeikes, a response has yet to be given. This type of flippant, dismissive behavior has become characteristic of an administration which seems infinitely more concerned with smoothing over self-created diplomatic fiascos than protecting fundamental rights.

This trend has become apparent both institutionally and legislatively. The position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is a vital component of U.S. foreign policy and one of the most effective ways of advocating religious liberty worldwide. The appointment and confirmation of Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, the last person to hold the position, took over two years to complete due in part to congressional wrangling and lack of effort from the Obama administration to push for results. The position was completely vacant from 2009 to 2011. Ambassador Johnson Cook resigned in October of 2013. A replacement has yet to be nominated.

In an oddly similar vein, H.R. 301, which was introduced in January 2013, calls for the creation of a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia, a role already being filled by the Ambassador at Large. While this at first sounds like a noble endeavor, what is not readily apparent is that the position would have no institutional hierarchy or structure within the already-existing religious freedom and human rights faculties of the State Department, making it ineffective at best and meddlesome towards the work that the International Religious Freedom Office already undertakes at worst. Considering the Administration’s refusal to fill swiftly an office established by law that deals with these geographical regions and this subject matter on a daily basis and Congress’ historic lack of oversight on the issue, the redundancy and shortsightedness of this attempt to alter policy is baffling.

Internationally, this failure to advance fundamental rights can already be seen in areas that are regular flashpoints of religious and political tension. As Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to be persecuted and even killed, the Obama Administration has recently been authorized to give over $1.5 billion to the Egyptian military regime which was responsible for overthrowing the country’s first democratically-elected president and has consistently ignored the pleas of religious minorities. Apparently, the principled choice of suspending aid to an illegitimate government was no longer expedient or politically savvy.

The Rohingya Muslims in Burma, a group which has been deemed one of the most persecuted on the planet, continues to suffer immensely at the hands of Buddhist extremists, as well as at the hands of regional governments who have been implicated in selling Rohingya refugees into slavery. Thousands have already perished while tens of thousands are still attempting to flee the violence. As recently as January 14, eight Rohingya, including three children, were brutally murdered during a raid carried out by Burmese government forces. Yet the focus of the United States remains the democratization of Burma and the economic opportunities that will present rather than the physical safety, political security and religious freedom of an entire people.

While these events paint a grim picture of U.S. policy in regards to the protection of religious freedom, steps can and should be taken to alter the dialogue, most of which must come directly from the Obama Administration: resolve the unnecessary conflict with a family that is merely seeking a better life for their children, remove redundant policy changes that could irreparably damage effective religious freedom promotion, and stand by the fundamental principles of the nation to uphold and protect both religious believers and non-believers from undue harm. The path is laid out and the choice is simple. In celebration of National Religious Freedom day, this is the time to act.

Grieboski is the chairman and CEO of just consulting and founder and chairman of the Board of Directors of THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy.

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