The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that adds protection of the right to perform bris milah and shechitah to the criteria the United States uses to evaluate the level of religious freedom in foreign countries.
The legislation, a multi-faceted amendment to the Religious Freedom Act, was prompted by significant increases in anti-Semitism in Europe and persecution of Christians, mostly in the Middle East. It seeks to give the government additional tools to address threats to religious expression abroad and it raises its priority level.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J), the bill’s author, is chairman of the of the House committee on human rights and co-chairman of the U.S. Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Over the past two years, he has held several hearings to highlight the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment abroad.
“The world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis of international religious freedom, a crisis that continues to create millions of victims; a crisis that undermines liberty, prosperity and peace; a crisis that poses a direct challenge to the U.S. interests in the Middle East, Russia, China and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere,” he said.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s vice president for Federal Affairs and Washington Bureau director, told Hamodia that the bill’s classification of laws against milah and shechitah as violations of religious freedom is “an important statement at an important time.”
“We have seen serious opposition to these rights in Europe and even in the U.S. We hope this law will deter countries that are considering such measures. Nobody wants to be seen as being in violation of religious freedom or subject to sanctions.”
Last year, Congress voted to add desecration of cemeteries to the same list of violations, a move that Rabbi Cohen said has been helpful in applying pressure to foreign governments on several occasions.
Shimon Cohen, the director of Shechitah UK, an advocacy group that was formed to protect ritual slaughter in Great Britain, but since has taken an active role throughout Europe, hoped that the legislation would encourage other countries as well as the EU to take similar steps.
“It’s very important and exciting in a world where religion is increasingly attacked that the United States is working to show that protecting beliefs and practice is important to democracy,” he said. “While we recognize that legislation in America can only go so far to help us here, I would hope that the E.U. takes note and follows their lead.”
Over the past decade, several European nations have seen increasingly strong movements against ritual circumcision and ritual slaughter of animals. Mr. Cohen said that while these causes are typically presented under the guise of protection of children or animals, their core motivation is to “control” growing Muslim populations, a trend in which, he said Jewish communities have become “collateral damage.”
The bill is one of several amendments that have been made to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created permanent offices within the State Department as well as the position of an “ambassador-at-large” to monitor the issue. Other changes made by this amendment include a directive to integrate religious freedom polices into national security, immigration, rule of law and foreign policy and a clause that requires the ambassador at large to report directly to the Secretary of State.
Senator and former presidential candidate, Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, but it has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing. In light of its unanimous House passage, opposition to its advancement is not expected.