Many of the earliest European settlers to reach the eastern seaboard of North America were religious refugees, some of whom created religious restrictions in the colonies that they founded. To guarantee religious freedom in the new nation formed after the Revolutionary War, our founders drafted the U.S. Constitution to prohibit religious tests for holding public office, and the First Amendment prohibits government from establishing an official religion or otherwise constraining the free exercise of religion.

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Freedom of religion is thus enshrined at the core of America’s human rights consensus along with freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Not all governments respect those fundamental, inalienable human rights. In response to growing religious persecution, Congress enacted and President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy objective of the United States.

During Congressional debates on the legislation, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut argued that the Act was compelled by the same civic tenet that motivated the founding fathers more than two centuries earlier, i.e., “the belief that no government has the right to tell the people how to worship and certainly not the right to discriminate against them or persecute them for the way they chose to express their faith in God.”

To focus attention on the problem of religious persecution and to insure sustained diplomatic engagement on the issue, the Act created an Ambassador-at-Large position, a bipartisan commission, a State Department office, and a National Security Council special adviser position, all devoted to international religious freedom. Each year since 1999 the State Department office created by the Act has assembled and submitted to Congress an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

Like the annual Human Rights Report and the Trafficking in Persons Report, the International Religious Freedom Report can provoke angry responses from authoritarian regimes and their apologists who often argue that human rights are a “Western” artifact of limited if any application in most societies. Contrary to such suggestions, however, there is no evidence that self expression and the instinct toward freedom are genetic anomalies confined to particular geographic locations.

The United Nations recognized the fundamental importance of protecting individual expression and aspiration when it promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Although there have been several attempts to recalibrate the discussion around the supposed “rights” of political and cultural elites to control the thoughts, words, and personal actions of the people they claim as theirs, the Declaration remains undiluted, including its Article 18:

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.”

At the end of last month Secretary Clinton released the International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 which describes the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories. This past year the Report focused special attention on key trends such as the impact of political and demographic transitions on religious minorities;  the effects of conflict on religious freedom;  and a rising tide of anti-Semitism.

The Report notes the ongoing, and in some cases worsening, state of religious repression in China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and certain other countries, but it also highlights significant positive changes in various parts of the world. It suggests that countries whose constitution, laws, policies, and practices protect religious freedom and human rights are likely to be the most vibrant and stable. As Secretary Clinton remarked when releasing the Report:

“Long practice and even academic studies show that it is the absence of religious freedom that is correlated with religious conflict and violent extremism. There is also evidence that conflict is more likely when states have official religions and persecute religious minorities. That makes sense if you think about it. When people are treated as equal under the law, hostilities among neighbors subside, and social unity has a chance to grow. And so does trust in the democratic process, because people are confident that their rights will be protected no matter who is in power. 

“In other words, religious freedom is one of those safety valves. It lets people have a say over important aspects of their lives, join their societies fully, and channel their frustrations into constructive outlets. When governments clamp down on religious freedom, they close those safety valves. The result can be humiliation, discontent, despair that has nowhere to go – a recipe for conflict and extremism.”

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In evaluating the United States’ own domestic efforts to guarantee religious freedom, the Secretary noted:

The religious life of our nation is vibrant and alive. And that has been possible because of our citizens’ capacity over time for tolerance and respect, but also because of the work of our government, all three branches, to uphold our Constitution, to take extraordinary care not to favor one religion over another, and to protect equally the rights of all. This has required perpetual vigilance and effort, and we all know there have been clashes and stumbles and vigorous impassioned debate along the way.

“We are still searching for and moving toward that more perfect union. Of course, we, like any non-divine entity, are not perfect. But we should be proud and grateful for the wisdom of our founders and for the diligence of those who came after to protect this essential freedom. It is rare in this world. But it shouldn’t be.”

To review the Executive Summary of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, click here. To access the current Report in its entirety, click here. For copies of prior reports as well as more information about the topic of international religious freedom, click here.