House Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated with what they describe as the State Department’s attempts to impede their investigation into the decision to greenlight $500,000 for a program promoting atheism overseas.
Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is now mulling his next steps, which could include legislation, subpoenas, or other oversight options aimed at forcing the State Department to comply with the probe’s requests for information, according to panel staff. McCaul and several other House Republicans are demanding more information about the 2021 State Department atheism grant and how the funds are being used.
Republican lawmakers have complained about what they describe as the department’s slow-walking of their responses to committee inquiries and requests over the last 15 months. They are particularly upset over the agency’s refusal to make key officials available for interviews.
Since becoming speaker in late October, Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican and vocal Christian, has strongly supported McCaul’s probe into the $500,000 atheism grant. Johnson and others want answers from the State Department about the unprecedented grant award that they say is aimed at promoting and expanding the influence of atheists and humanists in the Middle East and North Africa.
McCaul and other GOP House members involved in the probe argue the program could be violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of tax dollars to promote theocracy or a specific religion because the grant provides funds to certain groups but not others in specific countries.
“It’s not complicated – the United States shouldn’t be funding atheism anywhere – not at home, and not in the Middle East,” Rep. Kevin Hern, a Republican from Oklahoma, told RealClearPolitics. “It’s been over a year, and still no answers from the State Department. What is going on here?”
In the summer of 2022, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks led the first attempt to press Secretary of State Antony Blinken for answers about the grant. He accuses the Biden administration of “laundering money to atheists in foreign countries through an unconstitutional and un-American grant program.”
“I’ve sent multiple inquiries over the past year and a half, and the State Department continues to hide basic information about the program from me and the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Banks said. “This administration has ignored the Constitution, Congress, and the American public in pursuit of its radical, far-left agenda.”
In August, McCaul and GOP Reps. Brian Mast of Florida and Chris Smith of New Jersey, who heads the panel’s human rights subcommittee, wrote to the State Department, pressing the agency to comply with its requests. They also complained that the documents the State Department provided either failed to answer their questions or raised new questions regarding the agency’s grant review process. The August letter was addressed to Erin Barclay, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Rashad Hussain, ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
The lawmakers also took issue with the State Department’s claim that it doesn’t provide funds to any organization with “the aim of using such funds to promote or advance specific religious ideologies or beliefs.” The Republican trio said the statement “directly contradicts the language” in the Notice of Funding Opportunity awarding the grant, which they argued “makes it clear that the intent of the funded programs was to expand atheists’ presence and influence in the relevant countries.”
The 2021 $500,000 grant, titled “Promoting and Defending Religious Freedom Inclusive of Atheist, Humanist, Non-Practicing and Non-Affiliated Individuals,” marks the first time the U.S. government has channeled taxpayer dollars to an organization promoting atheism and humanism. 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.
But the lawmakers argue 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, a U.K.-based organization aimed at promoting humanism, an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human effort rather than divine or supernatural powers.
In their August letter to the Department, the House critics asserted that “even a cursory look into the operations and mantra” of Humanists International calls into question the agency’s claim that it is not providing funds to promote or advance specific religious ideologies or beliefs.
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. HI’s grant application 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.
Early in the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a shift away from prioritizing religious freedom over other human rights.
“Religious freedom is co-equal with other human rights because human rights are indivisible,” Blinken said in May 2021. “Religious freedom is not more or less important than the freedom to speak and assemble, to participate in the political life of one’s country, to live free from torture or slavery, or any other human right. Indeed, they’re all interdependent.”
Last week, the State Department defended its response to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation, saying it has been “robust,” involving multiple letters, several congressional staff briefings, and more than 2,000 documents to date. The Office of International Religious Freedom, which manages the grant program, also has briefed House Foreign Affairs Committee staff numerous times, a State Department spokesperson told RCP.
“The Department of State does not define what is and is not a religion,” the spokesperson noted in a statement. “Consistent with First Amendment principles, Department of State programs never promote specific religious philosophies or doctrines; rather, they promote the rights of all people [to] live free from abuse or discrimination on the basis of whatever their chosen religion or beliefs may be.”
“Programs are designed to provide tools and support to individuals and communities facing persecution, abuses, harassment, discrimination, and violence on account of their religion, beliefs or non-beliefs,” the spokesperson continued.
The State Department official also pointed to the contents of the 2016 Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA, which states “that religious persecution and the specific targeting of non-theists, humanists and atheists because of their beliefs is often widespread, systematic, and heinous.” The law also states that religious freedom includes the protection of both theistic and non-theistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion.
The Republicans counter that the State Department only provided documents to the committee a year and a half after their first request, and that the briefings did not satisfy the requests and occurred before the committee had the relevant documents. The lawmakers readily acknowledge that the law states that nonbelievers and atheists have a right to exist free of persecution but also argue it says nothing about requiring grants to subsidize atheistic beliefs or expand the presence and influence of atheists and humanists overseas.
The Republicans also want to know why the State Department does not define what is and is not a religion because any group could self-define as religious for purposes of IRFA and apply for religious freedom grants.
In the case of this $500,000 grant, the Republicans contend, there’s no question that it is helping to promote humanism and atheism overseas despite the constitutional issues it raises. In their August letter, McCaul, Smith, and Mast also stressed that HI works closely with member organizations that file lawsuits designed to promote humanism domestically, “often to the detriment of other religious creeds.”
The organizations include the American Humanist Association, or AHA, which shares a Washington, D.C. address with HI and American Atheists.
“Far from advancing religious freedom, AHA often takes actions that are antithetical to the idea of religious freedom,” they wrote. “HI’s close association with AHA speaks volumes about the true objectives of HI and should be of grave concern to the [State] Department.”