Christian domination of US religious freedom agency undercuts purpose


The Freedom From Religion Foundation calls on congressional leaders and President Biden to appoint those who reflect the religious and nonreligious makeup of the United States to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Congressional House leaders recently appointed three new commissioners to the agency, while President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reappointed two others. Unfortunately, all five are Christian, leaving only one non-Christian on the six-member body.

The USCIRF must have an even-handed perspective on religion to remain objective and maintain credibility in its recommendations, asserts FFRF.

The 96-page 2024 USCIRF annual report, which investigates and makes important policy recommendations regarding religious freedom violations on a country-by-country basis around the world, mentions blasphemy almost once per page. Laudably, as FFRF commented when it was recently published, the report includes a separate compendium about blasphemy laws, recommending that the U.S. State Department pressure countries to stop enforcing the archaic statutes. However, the U.S. would be on firmer ground demanding that other countries remove their anti-blasphemy laws if we first remove our own, given that eight U.S. states still have blasphemy laws on the books.

The new slate of appointees and re-appointees — Vicky Hartzler (Speaker Johnson), Maureen Ferguson (Speaker Johnson), Asif Mahmood (Minority Leader Jeffrees), Stephen Schneck (President Biden), and Eric Ueland (Senate Minority Leader McConnell) — are all Christian. The only other commissioner, Susie Gelman, is Jewish and serves through May 2025. Gelman was appointed by President Biden.

New appointee Vicky Hartzler raises particular concerns, as she is a former member of the U.S. House who reportedly rose to prominence as the “face of the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Missouri,” pushing to insert her personal anti-LGBTQAI-plus religious beliefs into the law. FFRF finds it unlikely that Hartzler will be able to accurately identify and report on similar religiously motivated discriminatory conduct abroad as the religious freedom violations they are.

Apart from any concern over specific commissioners, it is dismaying that five of the six USCIRF commissioners are Christian, when almost a third of American adults are religiously unaffiliated, and when the “Nones” (religiously unaffiliated) are the largest “denomination” by religious identification.

“How can we have any confidence USCIRF is looking out for the rights of nonreligious citizens when we have no representation?” asks FFRF Senior Policy Counsel Ryan Jayne. “We’ve seen good reporting of anti-blasphemy laws in the past, but those are mostly from reports on Muslim majority countries, another demographic with no USCIRF representation.”

USCIRF has an apparent need of a boost in visibility and prestige, as its detailed annual reports attract little media attention and its State Department recommendations are often ignored. The current imbalance of commissioners’ religious identities creates an appearance of bias that may undermine USCIRF’s credibility, which is the opposite of what it should be aiming for. FFRF calls on congressional leaders and President Biden to commit to appointing future commissioners who will bring diversity to USCIRF so that it better reflects the fabric of the American people.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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