The International Religious Freedom Act: Non-State Actors and Freedom from Sovereign Government Control

38 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2019 Last revised: 19 Sep 2019

See all articles by Robert C. Blitt

Robert C. Blitt

University of Tennessee College of Law

Date Written: August 9, 2019


The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) recently underwent its most significant amendment process since being introduced in 1997. Among the major changes, sponsors of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (Wolf Act) proposed adding a new framework to IRFA intended to address the phenomenon of non-state actors (NSAs) violating the right to freedom of religion or belief. The impetus for this new mandate, according to the bill’s sponsors, flowed from the realization that NSAs such as ISIS had “turned religious intolerance into a murderous force of global instability” and were responsible for “some of the most egregious religious freedom violations.”

Despite its findings that violent NSAs represented an expanding force responsible for exposing a significant percentage of the global population to severe violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, the Wolf Act faced an uphill battle in Congress that necessitated significant compromises to secure its passage. As a result, the final bill modified or altogether failed to enshrine certain measures originally proposed to address NSAs. In their place, the Wolf Act instituted an ambiguous statutory definition for those NSAs that would be subject to scrutiny under IRFA. Furthermore, while the new “Entity of Particular Concern” (EPC) designation for NSAs identified as engaging in “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” appeared to mirror IRFA’s existing mandatory sanctions regime for “Countries of Particular Concern”, it fell far short by triggering only a suggested obligation to “take specific actions, when practicable, to address [EPC] violations of religious freedom.”

As this new chapter for IRFA enters its fourth year, the article demonstrates that the NSA-related provisions present significant challenges for the U.S. government. To begin the task of fleshing out the nature and impact of these challenges, the article focuses on one element of IRFA’s NSA definition — namely, the requirement that an NSA be “outside the control of a sovereign government.” After addressing IRFA’s NSA definition and providing an overview of its implementation to date, the article turns to a critical appraisal of how the state control requirement has been implemented. The article closes with several suggestions aimed at clarifying definitions and institutional responsibilities to repair current practice and reinvigorate IRFA’s promise of promoting and protecting the right of all individuals to freedom of religion or belief.

Keywords: International Religious Freedom Act, human rights, nonstate, non-state, state responsibility, IRFA, freedom of religion, Taliban, Houthi, credible fear

JEL Classification: K3, K30, K33, K42,D78, Z12, Z18, K37, K19

Suggested Citation

Blitt, Robert C., The International Religious Freedom Act: Non-State Actors and Freedom from Sovereign Government Control (August 9, 2019). University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 377. Available at SSRN: or

Robert C. Blitt (Contact Author)

University of Tennessee College of Law ( email )

1505 West Cumberland Avenue
Knoxville, TN 37996
United States


Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics