The Biden administration, which came under fire earlier this year for an internal FBI memo targeting anti-abortion Catholic activists as “potential” domestic terrorists, is facing new questions from top House Republicans over its decision to fund a program promoting atheism overseas.
Rep. Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who heads the panel’s human rights subcommittee, are reviving a nearly year-long inquiry into a 2021 State Department grant they say is designed to expand the influence of atheists and humanists in the Middle East and North Africa.
The GOP House members argue that the program could be violating the establishment clause of the Constitution, which bars the use of tax dollars to promote theocracy or a specific religion.
McCaul, Smith, and Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, last week sent a letter to Erin Barclay, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Rashad Hussain, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The letter accuses both officials of “continued noncompliance” with their document requests regarding the atheism program.
“We write once again to ask why it is in America’s interest to promote atheism overseas and why the department refuses to provide certain documents that shed light on that misguided decision,” they wrote.
The trio specifically took issue with the State Department’s April 2021 decision to solicit bids for a $500,000 grant titled “Promoting and Defending Religious Freedom Inclusive of Atheist, Humanist, Non-Practicing and Non-Affiliated Individuals.” The funding notification states that the recipients’ programs should be designed to impact two to three countries across South and Central Asia or the Middle East and North Africa.
“By not adhering to a predominant religious tradition, many individuals face discrimination in employment, housing, in civil and criminal proceedings, and other areas, especially in the context of intersectional identities,” the funding opportunity states. The notice also outlines the program’s objective as an effort “to combat discrimination, harassment, and abuses against atheist, humanist, non-practicing, and non-affiliated individuals of all religious communities by strengthening networks among these communities and providing organizational training and resources.”
In several countries across those regions, blasphemy and anti-conversion laws prohibit insults to the prevailing religion and are often abused when allegations are made against religious minorities, atheists, and other nonbelievers.
While the State Department grant is designed to assist persecuted religious minorities and those who choose not to believe in a higher power, McCaul, Smith, and Mast are concerned that the program promotes the interest of one specific religious tradition—humanism—as opposed to those of all faith-based minorities.
The grant eventually went to Humanists International, or HI, an organization aimed at promoting humanism, an outlook and system of thought attaching prime importance to human effort rather than divine or supernatural powers.
In early June, the State Department told McCaul, Smith, and Mast that its Office of Religious Freedom and the human rights bureau “do not provide funds to any organization with the aim of using such funds to promote or advance specific religious ideologies or beliefs.”
In their most recent letter to the department, the House critics assert that “even a cursory look into the operations and mantra of Humanists International calls the agency’s claim into question.”
On HI’s website, the organization requires all of its member organizations to pay dues and support its five objectives, the first of which is “the advancement of humanism,” the Republicans point out. In HI’s grant application, it specifically states that it will award sub-grants for “organizing events and seminars to promote the positive aspects of humanism and other ethical non-religious worldviews,” including atheism, added McCaul, Smith, and Mast.
The State Department, which announced a shift away from prioritizing religious freedom over other human rights concerns at the beginning of the Biden administration, defended its grant solicitations.
“This [funding opportunity] solicited programs to promote respect for freedom of conscience and the human rights of nonbelievers and others to live without repression and in their societies on account of their beliefs or non-beliefs,” a State Department spokesperson told RealClearPolitics.
“We welcome congressional interest in our efforts to ensure that all people around the world are free to live their lives in accordance with their conscience and beliefs and will continue to engage with the committee—having already turned over hundreds of pages of documents, hosted two briefings for the committee, one as recently as today, and had the ambassador-at-large testify before the committee in July,” added the spokesperson, who requested anonymity.
Besides promoting humanism and atheism overseas, HI has close ties to member organizations that engage in U.S. litigation to promote humanism domestically, the GOP trio pointed out. These organizations include the American Humanist Association, or AHA, which shares a Washington, D.C., office with HI and American Atheists.
“Far from advancing religious freedom, AHA often takes actions that are antithetical to the idea of religious freedom,” the Republicans argued in their letter to Barclay and Hussain. “HI’s close association with AHA speaks volumes about the true objectives of HI and should be of grave concern to the department.”
The inquiry includes a series of questions and requests for transcribed, sit-down interviews with agency officials. If the agency continues to stonewall these specific requests, McCaul threatened to use his panel’s subpoena power to compel the interviews and responses.
The clash between the House Republicans and State Department officials over the atheism program underscores a deeper conflict over the Biden administration’s decision to shift priority away from helping overseas populations persecuted for their religious beliefs to a broader human rights focus.
In late March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that shift, which includes a focus on the rights of immigrants and refugees; victims of human trafficking; LGBTQ individuals; and women’s access to abortion, birth control, and other reproductive options. Blinken faulted the Trump administration for what he characterized as an “unbalanced” emphasis on religious liberty over other concerns.
“Human rights are also co-equal. There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” Blinken said during remarks at the State Department’s release of its 45th annual report on the status of human rights around the world. “At my confirmation hearing, I promised that the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate those unbalanced views. We do so decisively today.”
Even before Blinken’s statement, administration policies were reflecting the impact of this shift in priorities. Two days into the Biden administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development rejected a project planned in Nigeria dedicated to providing a detailed accounting of Christian and Muslim persecution by jihadist terrorists Boko Haram and militant Fulani herdsmen and others. Thousands of Christians, as well as some Muslims opposed to Islamic extremism, have been killed in Nigeria over the last several years in what some leading human rights activists have labeled a “slow-motion genocide.”
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, even though Christians make up nearly half of Nigeria’s population of 200 million. According to the religious freedom watchdog Open Doors International, more than 5,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria last year alone, accounting for nearly 90% of Christian deaths worldwide.
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