President Barack Obama signed a bill Dec. 16 updating a law passed in 2008 to promote religious freedom as an interest of United States foreign policy.
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed both houses of Congress in a final vote Dec. 13. It amends the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, landmark legislation that created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan group that monitors and advises government about violations of religious liberty around the world.
The new law, named after former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), adds provisions including the designation of “non-state actors” like ISIS and Boko Haram on a watch list previously reserved for national governments identified as the most egregious violators of religious liberty in the world.
It also specifies “the right not to profess or practice any religion,” language added to curb “the specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs,” and establishes that “routinely denying visa applications for religious workers can be indicative of a poor state of religious freedom.”
The bill requires additional training for Foreign Service officers about the strategic value of international religious freedom. It also charges the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom with maintaining a list of foreign prisoners believed to be jailed or mistreated because of their religious beliefs or advocacy.
Matthew Hawkins, coalitions director in the Washington office of the Ethics and Religious Liberty of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the biggest hurdle facing the bipartisan legislation was making sure it “didn’t get lost in the shuffle” of political conflict over the year-end budget battle and die because time ran out on the Congressional calendar.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-New Jersey), is named in honor of the 17-term congressman from Virginia who introduced the original law signed in 1998 by President Bill Clinton.
Wolf, who retired from Congress in 2015, now teaches about religious liberty issues at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.