Opening Session

Abigail Rich
Law School Reporter

Scholars, government officials and human rights workers from around the world congregated Sunday evening, 7 October 2012, for the opening session of the Nineteenth Annual International Law and Religion Symposium. The three distinguished keynote speakers who addressed the diverse audience delved into this year’s topic, “Religion, Democracy and Civil Society.” W. Cole Durham, Jr., Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, moderated the session. Symposium delegates and visitors were greeted by Brigham Young University International Vice President Sandra Rogers and J. Reuben Clark Law School Dean James R. Rasband, after which Professor Durham introduced the keynote speakers.

The first keynote speaker and this year’s recipient of the Annual Distinguished Service Award, Professor Silvio Ferrari from Italy, spoke about the meaning of the secular state, proposing that it originally grew from the Christian legal tradition based on divine natural law. First, he explained that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all accept forms of divine law as revealed to man by God Himself. Natural law, on the other hand, is viewed differently among those of differing religions. Can right and wrong be learned even without divine intervention, as the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas believed?

 “Believing that an act is good or bad in itself and not because God had commanded it or forbidden it opens the way to the idea that there can be universal moral principles, knowable through the proper use of reason, and lays the foundation for the development of the notion of natural law,” Professor Ferrari stated.      

After the Protestant Reformation in Europe shattered the concept of a common religion, a new solution was found in the idea of natural law—accessible by man’s reason and not exclusively by religious belief. Certain public areas of life had to be secularized in a way that was acceptable to all humankind, Christian or not.

The secular state is an instrument for achieving two universal goals, Professor Ferrari explained. The first objective is the freedom to profess one’s religion to the enjoyment of civil and political rights on an equal footing with the people who profess a different religion, or none.  The second objective is to achieve the first through separation of church and state. Even this notion has Christian roots, Professor Ferrari said, stemming from the biblical injunction, “give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.”     

In this way, the origin of the modern secular state is still tied to Christian theological concepts, raising two significant questions. One, is the western secular state a model that can be exported beyond the Christian West? Can it be a valuable type of state for the Arabic countries? And, two, is the secular state still able to answer the needs of Western societies that have become less Christian and more religiously plural?   

In order to find the solution, each civilization must search within its own culture and tradition and find what works for them, Professor Ferrari proposed.

“There are different roles,” he said, “but all are acceptable if they converge on the common goal of ensuring religious freedom and equal treatment, which are fundamental rights of every human being.”

Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Freedom, was the second keynote speaker of the evening. In light of the recent instances of violence and protest and unrest throughout the world, there has been an unprecedented amount of attention to religious freedom this year.  Ambassador Cook focused her remarks on current threats to religious freedom, and how government and civil society can work together to condemn hatred and violence and encourage peace and mutual respect.

“Despite some progress, the overall state of religious freedom in the world is really sliding backward,” Ambassador Cook said. “Members of faith communities around the world that have long been under pressure report that that pressure is growing.”

The year 2011 yielded an increased amount of anti-Semitism in more than 70 countries, including violence against individual Jews and Jewish communities. Tension in other countries has also led to much violence. Ambassador Cook proceeded to share specific examples of increasing hostility throughout the world, including a young Saudi Muslim who was arrested for questioning his faith on Twitter and remains in jail without charge.  

Although many countries allegedly restrict religious freedom to ensure safety and counter violent extremism, Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough recently observed “that a lack of religious freedom weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their government fomenting internal unrest, breeding extremism and inhibiting national unity and progress.” 

In addition to diplomatic and policy approaches, the government uses other types of programming as appropriate to advance religious freedom. Currently, in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 10 million dollars of foreign assistance funds is managed to provide conflict mitigation and training to local civil society organizations.  

“It’s important for us to partner with civil society, as well as with governments to help religious freedom and democracy to flourish around the world,” Ambassador Cook emphasized.

Ambassador Cook closed with a quote from her godfather, Martin Luther King, Jr., “’Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.’ May we be the ones who keep that light alive.”

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), was the concluding keynote speaker at the opening session of the Religion Symposium. She addressed the topic of religious freedom both from the perspective of USCIRF and also from the perspective of how faith and religion impact the character of the societies we build.

“The work we are engaged in, namely the defense of freedom of conscience and belief, is no mere sideline issue,” Dr. Swett noted early on. “Many of the most vexing and dangerous issues confronting our world stem from a failure on the part of countries and cultures to fully and equally protect this right, and its essential companion and antecedent, namely the right of free expression.”  

Dr. Swett outlined three facts to begin her discussion about religious freedom:

1.       Across the globe, religion matters to people.

2.       Because religion matters, so does religious freedom. 

3.       In too many countries, the very freedom people want is being denied.

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life this year concluded that 75 percent of the world’s population—over five billion people—live in countries that perpetrate or tolerate serious religious freedom violations, ranging from excessive rules to imprisonment, torture or even mass murder.

Dr. Swett remarked that countries that honor and protect the right to religious freedom are more peaceful, stable and prosperous than those that do not.

“Thus, taking a stand for religious freedom is not merely a legal or a moral duty, but a practical necessity,” Dr. Swett said, “one that is critical to the well-being of the entire world.”

One of the roles of USCIRF is to monitor religious freedom conditions globally. In so doing, they have found at least three kinds of violations engaged in or permitted by nations and their governments.

1.       State hostility toward religion, religious communities and religious leadership—actively persecuting religious people or groups on account of their beliefs.

2.       State sponsorship of violent, extremist religious ideology and education—actively promoting religious ideas and propaganda often of a violent extremist nature.

3.       State failure to prevent and punish religious freedom violations—neglecting to take action to protect those targeted by others due to their beliefs.

In referring to how faith and religion impact the character of our societies, Dr. Swett concluded, “We are not simply fighting for the right of people within their own lives and within their own hearts to pursue truth as they believe it, to live out their conscience. But, I believe we are empowering them to become the kind of people … that will enable them to build the communities, the countries, the culture and the world that we all dream of.”