Expert: Religious freedom pick will fail without resources

"David Saperstein World Economic Forum 2013" by World Economic Forum via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

While welcoming the proposal for a new global religious freedom ambassador after a nine-month vacancy, one expert warned that adequate resources must be given for the position to be effective.

Former American diplomat Dr. Thomas Farr told CNA that “Rabbi (David) Saperstein is a well regarded, long-time advocate for religious freedom.” However, he cautioned that the rabbi “will fail if the administration in general, and the State Department in particular, do not provide him the tools to succeed, tools they did not provide his predecessor.”

On July 28, the Obama administration announced the president’s intent to nominate Saperstein as the next U.S. Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

The ambassador position was vacant for months following the resignation of Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook last October. The choice of Rabbi Saperstein follows criticism of the administration for not filling the position more quickly amidst global religious freedom concerns.

Farr, who currently directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, called the extended vacancy “bizarre” and said the administration had “no excuse” for taking so long to choose a successor.

“It reflects what has been an incredibly lax attitude by the administration on religious freedom. Perhaps that has changed with the nomination of Saperstein,” he stated.

Rabbi Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and serves on numerous boards, including the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

He was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and was formerly a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

He was a strong supporter of passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, although he has voiced opposition to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the 1993 law protects Hobby Lobby from being required to pay for employees’ early abortion drugs.

Saperstein was chosen in 2009 by Newsweek magazine the most influential rabbi in the United States. He also teaches Jewish Law and First Amendment Church-State Law at Georgetown University.

Farr emphasized that Saperstein would have to receive proper support from the administration in order to succeed as ambassador.

First, Saperstein needs to “report directly to the Secretary of State,” which is not currently the case, Farr said. This would send the message “for the first time” that “this administration is giving the issue of religious freedom priority.”

In addition, he said, the rabbi – if confirmed by the Senate – needs the staff and funding that his predecessor lacked.

Furthermore, the next ambassador must have “authority to draft an inter-agency, U.S. national security strategy for the advancement of religious freedom,” Farr emphasized.


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