The Obama administration on Monday came out strongly against efforts by Islamic nations to bar the defamation of religions, saying the moves would restrict free speech.
"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. "I strongly disagree."
Clinton said the United States was opposed to negative depictions of specific faiths and would always fight against belief-based discrimination. But she said a person's ability to practice their religion was entirely unrelated to another person's right to free speech.
"The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions," Clinton said. "These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse."
Her comments came as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 56-nation bloc of Islamic countries, is pressing the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution that would broadly condemn the defamation of religion.
The effort is widely seen as a reaction to perceived anti-Islamic incidents, including the publication in Europe of several cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Michael Posner, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor whose office prepares the religious freedom report, said the resolution "goes too far."
"The notion that a religion can be defamed and that any comments that are negative about that religion can constitute a violation of human rights to us violates the core principle of free speech," he said.
Posner was part of a delegation at the Human Rights Council that successfully negotiated with Egypt a compromise over another similar resolution that had aimed to condemn religion-related harassment or discrimination.
He said the administration wanted to differentiate between such harassment and defamation and would do so both in the Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly.
"There are limits to free expression and there are certainly concerns about people targeting individuals because of their religious belief or their race or their ethnicity," he said.
'Violation of free speech'
"But at the same time, we're also clear that a resolution, broadly speaking, that talks about the defamation of a religion is a violation of free speech."
Clinton and Posner spoke as they released the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom, which, as in years past, criticized Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan for violating religious freedom.
Those eight nations are designated "countries of particular concern" for abuses of religious worshippers. The Obama administration is currently reviewing the designations, which can be accompanied by sanctions.