Robert Blitt

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Journal of Law and Public Affairs


This Article takes a critical look at the major changes brought about by recent amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). The first section briefly traces IRFA’s key features and operation since its enactment, including an overview of the statute’s institutions and reporting and sanctioning mechanisms. This section also highlights the ongoing debate regarding IRFA’s legitimacy and offers a summary of the major criticisms leveled against the statute, as well as the responses raised in its defense.

With this background in place, the Article turns to an analysis of the legislative history surrounding the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (Wolf Act) between 2015 and 2016. This bipartisan legislative initiative envisioned a wide range of amendments intended to address some of IRFA’s past shortcomings. Among the changes initially put forward, IRFA’s narrow focus on states would be expanded to include violent nonstate actors responsible for violating freedom of religion or belief. In addition, the original Wolf Act called for boosting the responsibilities and profile of IRFA’s institutional actors, increasing funding for the promotion of international religious freedom activities, mandatory religious freedom training of State Department officials, and a significant reduction of executive discretion. As a review of this legislative history will demonstrate, however, many of the changes originally proposed would be either diluted or altogether deleted, the victims of bad design or competing political interests. The final content of the Wolf Act as enacted represents an ambivalent renewal of IRFA’s original promise “to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus . . . to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”

In conclusion, the Article posits some of this ambivalence may be alleviated or partially remedied based on how IRFA’s primary institutional actors turn to the task of implementation. At the same time, securing a more definitive assertion of the central role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy as envisioned in the original Wolf Act will likely require a renewed, more concerted and committed second effort by Congress.

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