LGBT Groups Object to New Chairman of Int'l Religious Freedom Watchdog

By Patrick Goodenough | July 26, 2013 | 5:10am EDT

Prof. Robert George is the new chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. (Photo: Princeton University)

( – Princeton University Jurisprudence Professor Robert George, the newly-elected chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, is a leading Catholic thinker and ethicist, but homosexuality advocacy groups are unhappy about the position going to an opponent of same-sex marriage.

The USCIRF is an independent, statutory body established to promote and defend religious freedom abroad. Its remit does not include marriage – or any other domestic issue – in the United States.

Still, George’s election this week to chair the nine-member bipartisan commission for the next year has not pleased some same-sex marriage proponents.

Reporting on the development Thursday, LGBTQ Nation, which describes itself as “America’s most followed LGBTQ news source,” observed that the USCIRF, in its announcement of George's election, failed to mention George’s role in founding “the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM).”

LGBTQ Nation – the acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer/questioning – was also unhappy that the USCIRF had not mentioned George’s association with the Manhattan Declaration.

George co-authored the 2009 document, initially signed by more than 150 Christian leaders – and many more subsequently – who said that civil disobedience may be needed to defend life, marriage and religious freedom in the United States.

After noting that George was also a co-author of the original Federal Marriage Amendment – a bid to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, introduced in Congress numerous times since 2002, without success – LGBTQ Nation added pointedly that “[t]he USCIRF is funded entirely by the federal government on an annual basis and its staff members are government employees.”

In the comments section below the news story, several dozen LGBTQ Nation readers made clear their strong views on the matter overnight.

Created under the 1999 International Religious Freedom Act (IDFA), the USCIRF is tasked with making recommendations to the executive and legislative branches about promoting religious freedom abroad.

Its commissioner are unpaid private sector figures, and are appointed in line with a set-down formula – two by the president, two by congressional leaders of the president’s party, and four by congressional leaders of the party not in the White House.

When George was first appointed in March 2012 – by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) – the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group protested.

“For the Speaker to appoint someone who embodies NOM’s deep seated anti-gay animus is the wrong thing to do,” Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said at the time. “This appointment is counter to the commission’s stated mission because George represents a narrow and exclusionary ideology.”

George, who has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, will succeed as chairman Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation (named for her father, the late Rep. Tom Lantos), and a teacher of human rights and foreign policy at Tufts University.

Swett, who was appointed to the USCIRF by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and has chaired the commission for the past year, will now serve as one of two vice-chairs.

The other incoming vice-chair is M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the “anti-Islamist” non-profit American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and an appointee of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Swett praised George as “a true human rights champion whose compassion for victims of oppression and wisdom about international religious freedom shine through all we have accomplished this past year.”

A key function of the USCIRF is to make recommendations to the administration about designating “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious violations of religious freedom. Under the IRFA, such countries may face sanctions or other measures designed to encourage improvements.

Currently designated CPCs are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

The USCIRF supports those designations but has also been prodding the State Department, without success, to add Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the list.

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