Twenty years ago Saturday, President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act into law. The act created the position of an ambassador for the promotion of religious liberty and established a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Elliott Abrams, who chaired the commission in 2000 and 2001, comments on the act’s legacy:
[T]he act has not eliminated religious persecution around the globe. China’s vast repression of Christians, Uighur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists, or Iran’s fierce persecution of the Baha’i, are terrible proof of that. But the act did institutionalize reporting on violations of religious freedom; the State Department now issues annual reports on religious freedom, and its religious-freedom office under the ambassador-at-large has perhaps two dozen staff. . . . [The act] certainly elevated attention given to this critical issue, and largely killed the bizarre claim that trying to protect religious freedom was somehow constitutionally suspect [as an erosion of the barrier between church and state].
And the commission, which has its own staff independent of the State Department, established a voice that need not balance various U.S. foreign-policy goals and has the sole duty to tell the truth about violations of religious freedom. . . .
Much legislation is soon forgotten, or wrong-headed, or parochial in intention and effect. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 was true to our nation’s history and our deepest beliefs, and continues to remind all who serve in our government that protecting and advancing “the first freedom” must be a goal of our foreign policy.