Next Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Must Also Defend Freedom from Religion

At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Tuesday, President Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom pledged to advocate worldwide for “the rights of individuals to believe, or not to believe” as they choose.

The nominee, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, is a New York-based pastor who served as an advisor to the Clinton administration and has met with religious leaders on five different continents. If confirmed, Dr. Cook would serve as the principal advisor on religious freedom issues to both the President and Secretary of State. She received her first confirmation hearing for this post in November, but the nomination expired when the committee didn’t hold a vote before last year’s session ended. Now – as religious freedom issues continue to plague much of the world – the White House is reportedly urging the Foreign Relations Committee to move forward with her nomination.

According to a February 2009 Pew Research Center study cited by Sen. Richard Lugar, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries “with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.” Lugar and other committee members voiced specific concerns about embattled Christian minorities in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where Christian government officials spearheading efforts to repeal that nation’s blasphemy laws have recently been assassinated.

In her testimony and response to Senators’ questions on Tuesday, Dr. Cook emphasized her commitment to advocate for religious freedom worldwide – including her support for laws that protect so-called blasphemy (irreverent speech toward religion) and the right to change one’s religion. Those comments were promising.

But one issue that is often overlooked – and was not specifically addressed at Tuesday’s hearing – is the need to also protect the rights of those who choose to practice no religion at all. While nontheistic Americans enjoy the protections of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, as many as a billion people around the world face persecution simply for not believing in a deity. Their protection is just as vital as those who are members of minority religions.

The next Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom will have the opportunity to create dialogue on such issues with numerous state officials and religious leaders around the world. SCA believes strongly that the next Ambassador must be willing to represent and speak out not only on behalf of religious minorities, but nontheists across the globe as well. As a nation committed to religious freedom, the United States must promote laws that protect the rights of people to practice their religion, to practice no religion, and to speak freely about religion without fear of government reprisal.

Unfortunately, until Dr. Cook is confirmed by the Senate, the post designed to advance these goals will remain empty.


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