Durbin, Leahy, Ellison, Cicilline Introduce Bill to Enhance Protections for International Religious Freedom

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and U.S. Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN) and David Cicilline (D-RI) today introduced legislation to enhance protections for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing religious persecution, hold accountable the perpetrators of religious freedom violations, and reauthorize and reform the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). 


Our country has a long tradition of promoting religious freedom around the globe,” said Durbin.  “As the world is in the midst of the worst refugee crisis ever recorded, including millions from vulnerable religious minority communities, it is becoming more and more important for the U.S. to find new strategies for defending religious freedom.”


Throughout the history of the world, religious minorities have been persecuted and maligned.  There is a long list of religions whose members have been systematically denied freedom, stigmatized, and even murdered on account of their faith.  We must never forget this, and we must work harder to ensure that those fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the United States are protected and able to practice their religion and live freely,” said Leahy.


Half of the world lives under oppressive regimes that restrict the freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is one of our core foundational principles and the U.S. has a long history for providing a safe haven to the persecuted, especially vulnerable religious minorities. As thousands flee violence and persecution in Syria, it is time to do more. I am proud to join Senators Durbin and Leahy and Representative Cicilline in introducing a bill that expands protections for those that face religious persecution and equips the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom with the tools it needs to be a more effective monitor of religious freedom around the world,” said Ellison.


Since the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the state of religious freedom around the world has significantly worsened.  Last month, the United Nation’s Refugee Agency reported the number of people forcibly displaced by the end of 2014 is a staggering 59.5 million – the highest level ever recorded – including millions who faced religious persecution in their homelands. 


The Further Independence of Religion for Security and Tolerance (FIRST) Freedom Act of 2015 would create new tools to protect the victims of religious persecution and to deter and punish perpetrators.  Specifically, the bill would:


  • Authorize the President to designate as refugees specifically-defined groups based on religion or other shared characteristics;
  • Replace the requirement that an asylum applicant demonstrate that at least “one central reason” the applicant is at risk of persecution is race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and require, instead, that one of these five grounds be “a factor” in the applicant’s risk of persecution;
  • Eliminate the one-year deadline for filing an asylum claim, which has prevented many victims of religious and other forms of persecution from securing asylum;
  • Grant the U.S. government authority to deport and deny admission to any foreign national who commits particularly severe violations of religious freedom;
  • Establish a new criminal offense for religious persecution, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, or, if the death of any person results from the offense, life in prison;
  • Reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) with important reforms to encourage bipartisanship, enhance coordination with the State Department, and improve Congressional oversight; and
  • Authorize USCIRF to conduct a study and publish a report on the effect of expedited removal on asylum claims.