Ján Figeľ and András Sajó open the 24th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium
Image for Ján Figeľ and András Sajó open the 24th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium
Left: Ján Figeľ Right: András Sajó

by Melissa Hartman, BYU Law Student and Symposium Volunteer

Two distinguished Keynote speakers addressed participants from around the world assembled for the opening session of the 24th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium.  In addition to an address by Ján Figeľ, Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of religion or Belief Outside the European Union, those assembled at the J. Rueben Clark Law School and participants via webcast, were privileged to hear from András Sajó, Former Judge and Vice-President of the European Court of Human Rights.

The opening session commenced with the Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Brett G. Sharffs welcoming attendees and inviting them to reflect on the role religion can play in building peace, stability, and harmony or alternatively contributing to disunity and violence. BYU President Kevin J. Worthen, and Dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Gordon Smith, then also welcomed attendees, after which the Founding Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, W. Cole Durham Jr. introduced the Keynote speakers.

Ján Figeľ’s message focused on the political and social dimensions of religious freedom in a changing world.  He expressed that freedom of religion or belief is the litmus test of all human rights because it is linked to a litany of other rights including freedom of thought, conscience, and conviction, as well as the right to assembly, association, and expression.  As a consequence of this expansiveness, Figeľ explained “respect of human rights is not possible without respecting freedom of religion or belief.” Nevertheless, global statistics reveal a gloomy picture, as three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries where freedom of religion is highly restricted.  The scale of these restrictions ranges from intolerance, to discrimination, to persecution, and even genocide.  He expressed, “Society needs to learn to live in diversity, not just exist in diversity.”  With the forced migration of a record number of people (245 million), it is time to think about religious climate change and to overcome ignorance, illiteracy, and divisions, and work for peace, justice, sustainable development, and human dignity for all. Figeľ explained peace is the fruit of justice, while warning that evil has three decisive allies: ignorance, indifference, and fear.  These are combatted with courage, education, and responsibility.  While the world is changing, resulting in uncertainty and conflict, Figeľ expressed that one thing should not and does not change: our shared commitment to upholding human dignity and protecting fundamental human rights.

Following Ján Figeľ’s remarks, András Sajó spoke of the detrimental effects on religious freedom resulting from a decline in liberty, dedicating his remarks to W. Cole Durham Jr.  He identified three particular assaults on liberty including contemporary security concerns, the extension of the public sphere and government services, and the shift in the freedom to manifest religion from a matter of liberty toward being a matter of personal identity. Sajó related how historically, countries have justified security-based restrictions on religion as necessary to protect society against subversion or affronts to national identity.  While some argue that radical religious teachings should be prohibited, the adoption of so-called subversive doctrines may destroy the current framework of protections for all religions. Sajó then turned to the problems related to the “cult of personal identity,” asserting that new human rights have been created in the last 20-30 years that have extended the public sphere and created a tension with religious rights.  For instance, because religions command external action that overlaps with ordinary human conduct, such as conduct related to diet, appearance, and social interactions, freedom of religion increasingly comes into conflict with these new rights and the prevailing forms of public order, especially where public order is secularized. However, Sajó argues the state should respect religious demands on conduct as long as they are compatible with other peoples’ freedoms.  That entails toleration of such practices even if that toleration may cause some emotional discomfort for others. Ordinary emotional discomfort cannot be sufficient grounds for restricting religious expression. Sajó concluded his message with a request for tolerance and by expressing his hope that participants in the democratic process would understand the moral superiority and practical advantages of the dictates of liberty.