When the U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly passed a bipartisan bill last year (402 - 22) that would allow President Obama to appoint a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East and central Asia, it appeared the Senate would quickly follow suit. America would then be well on its way to reminding the world about how highly we value religious freedom and remind them that we are paying attention, even in the furthest corners of the globe.
It seemed like a simple, heavily symbolic piece of legislation that elected officials of all political affiliations could quickly agree on, right? After all, who could be opposed to a special envoy dedicated to protecting the rights of religious minorities in some of the most troubled regions of the world?
But a funny thing happened on the way to a bill signing.
After the Senate Foreign Relations Committee handily approved S. 653, a proposal that was very similar to the House's bill, two Senators put a hold on the bill when it was planned to be brought up under a procedure called, "unanimous consent." Despite the fact that 22 Senators co-sponsored the bill, the chamber's rules allow even one dissenting Senator to prevent a vote under this approach.
It would be wrong to think that bottling up potential legislation like this is "no big deal." For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church often finds itself as a minority voice where religious liberty is concerned. Even in the Western world, our members periodically encounter challenges to practicing their faith. But in parts of the world less tolerant of dissenting views, the consequences of following their conscience can be far more severe for religious minorities. Wrongful imprisonment, torture and even death can occur in the world's most volatile regions.
This is why it's time for Senators Lee (R-UT) and Coburn (R-OK) to release their holds on this bill and allow it to pass through the Senate. As Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), one of the bill's co-sponsors, said after the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, in a rare recent show of bipartisanship, unanimously passed the bill out of committee, it's time "to allow a vote to demonstrate to leaders in the region that the United States takes religious freedom seriously."
The Seventh-day Adventist Church strongly supports Senator Blunt's position, also agreeing with his point that, "the continued violence we've witnessed against Coptic Christians and other civilians in the Middle East is deeply disturbing and defies the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear."
Herein lies a key point at the heart of religious freedom. A true commitment to the concept requires an outward-looking approach. Worrying exclusively about our own ability to worship freely could be little more than selfish impulse. It is the selfless instinct to protect the rights of all -- even those who disagree with us -- to follow their conscience that truly defines those who are passionate about religious freedom. All of our brothers and sisters around the globe -- no matter what deity they believe in -- must be free to practice their religious beliefs according to their conscience.
America has a moral responsibility to lead on these issues. Appointing this special envoy will show those in leadership positions in some of the places in the world where religious freedom is under all-out assault -- places like Iran, Syria and Egypt, among others -- that we are watching. And that we care. And that we will find ways to hold them accountable.
This week, the Seventh-day Adventist Church prays for God's blessings to be showered upon the millions around the world who are celebrating religious holidays.
We also encourage those in a unique position to allow America to further its global leadership in the area of religious freedom to allow the special envoy bill to proceed to a vote in the Senate as quickly as possible.
After all, what better time than this to recall the words of Matthew 25:40: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'" (New International Version)