Robert Blitt

Document Type


Publication Title

Marquette Law Review


The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) recently underwent its most significant amendment process since being introduced in 1997. Among the major changes, sponsors of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (Wolf Act) proposed adding a new framework to IRFA intended to address the phenomenon of non-state actors (NSAs) violating the right to freedom of religion or belief. The impetus for this new mandate, according to the bill’s sponsors, flowed from the realization that NSAs such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) were wielding religious intolerance to commit “some of the most egregious religious freedom violations.”

Despite its findings that violent NSAs represented an expanding force responsible for exposing a significant percentage of the global population to severe abuses of freedom of religion and belief, the Wolf Act faced an uphill battle in Congress that necessitated significant compromises to secure its passage. As a result, the final bill modified or altogether failed to enshrine certain measures originally proposed to address NSAs. In their place, the Wolf Act instituted an ambiguous statutory definition for those NSAs that would be subject to scrutiny under IRFA. Furthermore, while the new “Entity of Particular Concern” (EPC) designation for NSAs identified as engaging in “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” appeared to mirror IRFA’s existing mandatory sanctions regime for “Countries of Particular Concern,” it fell far short by triggering only a suggestion that the President “take specific actions, when practicable, to address [EPC] violations of religious freedom.”

As this new chapter for IRFA enters its third year, this Article will demonstrate that the NSA-related provisions present significant challenges for the U.S. government. To begin the task of fleshing out the nature and impact of these challenges, the Article focuses on one element of IRFA’s NSA definition — namely, the requirement that an NSA be “outside the control of a sovereign government.” After addressing IRFA’s NSA definition and providing an overview of its implementation to date, this Article turns to a critical appraisal of how the state control requirement has been implemented to date. The Article closes with several suggestions aimed at clarifying definitions and institutional responsibilities to repair current practice and reinvigorate IRFA’s promise of promoting and protecting the right of all individuals to freedom of religion or belief.

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Publication Date

Winter 2019

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