Congress graded on global religious freedom

WASHINGTON (BP) -- One-third of Congress again received "above average" scores on global religious liberty, according to an analysis of the latest session.

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The International Religious Freedom Congressional Scorecard showed the 115th Congress (2017-2018) had the same percentage of members who scored "above average" as did the 114th Congress (2015-2016). The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative (21Wilberforce) issued the scorecard in July and is now in the process of distributing it to members of Congress.

In its scorecard, 21Wilberforce gave A or A+ grades to 48 congressional members, 31 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., gained the highest scores in their respective chambers.

Distribution of the scorecard comes as religious repression appears to be on the rise globally despite efforts by the legislative and executive branches of the United States government to promote freedom of belief and conscience overseas.

A Pew Research Center report issued in July showed "high" or "very high" restrictions on religion by 52 governments, an increase of 12 in the decade covered from 2007 to 2017. It also found the countries with the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion grew from 39 to 56 in the same period.

Religious freedom advocates commended 21Wilberforce's project.

The scorecard is "a critically important initiative," said Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, in a statement included in the scorecard. "We're seeing the greatest peril posed to religious freedom since the rise of Nazism and communism."

21Wilberforce's scorecard "has an incredibly important story to tell," said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, in comments in the scorecard. "As religious freedom abuses have proliferated around the world, America's efforts to advocate for this bedrock human right have not kept pace. This is information we need to know so that all of us can better protect the conscience rights of people across the globe."

The scorecard is "a tool to promote this universal and fundamental freedom" and to monitor Congress' efforts "in standing up for oppressed religious minorities in every part of the world," said Lou Ann Sabatier, 21Wilberforce's director of communications.

"In fairness to members of Congress, if they don't hear from the voters, they may not think their voters care," Sabatier told Baptist Press in written remarks. "The scorecard allows people in members' districts to understand what is happening in Congress and to encourage and to thank members of Congress who support religious freedom legislation. It also educates members and gives them the opportunity to be proactive by authorizing, co-sponsoring and ultimately passing bills that support the concerns of their constituents."

According to 21Wilberforce, members of Congress gain points for the scorecard by voting for international religious liberty legislation, sponsoring or cosponsoring such proposals, joining related caucuses and chairing or co-chairing such caucuses.

Congressional members receiving A+ grades in the scorecard were: Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; and Rubio; and Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.; Steve Chabot, R-Ohio; David Cicilline, D-R.I.; Barbara Comstock, R-Va.; Gerald Connolly, D-Va.; Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; McGovern; Ted Poe, R-Texas; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.; Brad Sherman, D-Calif.; and Chris Smith, R-N.J.

21Wilberforce scored 115 congressional proposals in 2017-18. Six gained passage, all by unanimous or overwhelming votes. Among the six were the:

-- Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, which provides humanitarian aid to Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in the two Middle East countries and supports criminal investigations and prosecutions of the terrorists responsible for genocidal acts and crimes against humanity.

-- North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act, which authorizes spending for programs to promote religious liberty and other human rights, as well as efforts to advance freedom of information under the totalitarian regime.

21Wilberforce acknowledged the scorecard is "an imperfect tool." All attempts to advance international religious freedom cannot be counted, and congressional members and their staffs support the cause through "quiet diplomacy and casework," it said.

High scores by congressional members on international religious freedom do not necessarily translate to support for protecting religious liberty domestically. The faceoff between sexual liberty and religious liberty has resulted in many advocates for overseas religious freedom declining to support efforts to protect that freedom in this country.

For instance, no Democratic member of the House of Representatives voted in May against the Equality Act, an expansive gay and transgender rights bill that opponents warn would devastatingly undermine freedom of religion and conscience.

21Wilberforce is named after William Wilberforce, the leader in the British Parliament of the late 1700s and early 1800s in the successful effort to abolish the slave trade and slavery.

The scorecard is available at https://IRFscorecard.org.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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