Congress Approves International Religious Freedom Bill That Recognizes Rights of Non-Religious

December 15, 2016

Congress has approved a bill this week that would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include language providing explicit protections for the rights of non-theists, atheists, and humanists.

H.R. 1150, known as the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 by adding the bolded language: 

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.” The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion. Governments have the responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of their citizens and to pursue justice for all. Religious freedom is a fundamental right of every individual, regardless of race, sex, country, creed, or nationality, and should never be arbitrarily abridged by any government.

Though not confined to a particular region or regime, religious persecution and the specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs is often particularly widespread, systematic, and heinousunder totalitarian governments and in countries with militant, politicized religious majorities and in regions where non-state actors exercise significant political power and influence.  

In addition, the bill would expand language in the IRF Act of 1998 regarding actions that should be considered human rights violations:

“... any of the following acts if committed on account of an individual’s conscience, non-theistic views, or religious belief or practice: detention, interrogation, imposition of an onerous financial penalty, forced labor, forced mass resettlement, imprisonment, forced religious conversion, forcibly compelling non-believers or non-theists to recant their beliefs or to convert, beating, torture, mutilation, rape, enslavement, murder, and execution. 

Unfortunately, the bill also includes controversial language which states that prohibitions on ritual animal slaughter and male infant circumcision would count as examples of violations of religious freedom. 

“... persecution of lawyers, politicians, or other human rights advocates seeking to defend the rights of members of religious groups or highlight religious freedom violations, prohibitions on ritual animal slaughter or male infant circumcision ...”

CFI joined dozens of organizations in urging key members of Congress to approve this bill through sign-on letters in May 2015 and November 2016 and lobby meetings on Capitol Hill. We welcome the passage of this bill and consider it a signficiant acheivement. 

The bill is now being sent to the desk of President Obama.

You can read the full bill here, and news coverage of its passage here