Mali, Latvia, South Korea, Ghana. Delegates from around the world gathered at BYU’s Law and Religion Symposium. The symposium, hosted by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, was held from Oct. 6-8. Speakers from as far as Korea participated in panels and held lectures to address ways to prevent and respond to the persecution of various religions and beliefs.
In the opening session on Sunday, Oct. 6, David Alton, a member of the U.K. Parliament, sought to inform and inspire action as he shared harrowing examples of tragedies that come from persecution.
During his speech, Alton quoted G. K. Chesterton, a late English writer and philosopher, who said, “When people begin to ignore human dignity, it would not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”
While discussing past injustices against members of various religions or beliefs, delegates also spoke on the current state of their countries and what is being done to solve such issues.
During a breakout session titled “Global Efforts to Address and Prevent Religious Persecution,” Kelsey Zorzi, director of advocacy for Global Religious Freedom, shared efforts being made in the United Nations to fight against persecution.
While talking about her work, Zorzi said there have been many rejected resolutions that have slowed progress on working with religious freedom. She also talked about the progress made and what has yet to be done.
“We have seen a number of positive developments, specifically over the last year,” Zorzi said. “And yet, even these positive developments, which I’ll detail, all point to how work still needs to be done.”
Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a University of Utah adjunct professor, focused most of his remarks on issues occurring on a local scale. In doing so, he presented several issues through various past and present court cases: potential conflict between LGBT rights and religious liberty, government interference in religious associations and government funding for religious organizations.
When talking about LGBT rights and religious liberty, Goodrich talked specifically about hiring discrimination and whether or not religious institutions have the right to decide not to hire someone based on the applicant’s sexual orientation.
“How is this a religious freedom issue?” Goodrich asked. “The issue is that there are tens of thousands of religious organizations here in the United States that have long-standing beliefs about human sexuality, and they expect that their employees will adhere to those beliefs.”
He said that if the ruling decides that this type of hiring is sexual discrimination, many religious organizations will face lawsuits. However, Goodrich also said that Chief Justice Roberts and his firm made the argument that 23 states have already provided protection for LGBT employees and coupled those protections with “broad religious exemptions recognizing that religious organizations have a fundamental right to expect their workers to adhere to their religious beliefs and practices.”
Other issues Goodrich discussed, such as interference from the government in religious organizations, addressed issues involving the separation of church and state.
“If anything, my expectation is that the law in the U.S. is going to get better in the coming years, and hopefully, that will provide a model of religious freedom in other countries,” Goodrich said.
But for now, religious freedom is still a fight, not only in the United States but also in other countries. Part of fighting for religious freedom is fighting against religious persecution. Ewelina Ochab, a human rights advocate, legal researcher and author, shared her thoughts on this during the first plenary session of the symposium.
“I do believe that the issue of religious persecution has been neglected for way too long,” Ochab said.
In addressing that persecution, Ochab said engaging in the fight against these types of crimes against humanity is what is most important. Even if the opportunities to be involved in fighting against persecution are not readily available, opportunities must be made.
One way to create opportunities is to become an advocate of academics.
Ochab said the educational gap in academics can be filled by looking into crimes against humanity. Ochab noted that once somebody learns about those crimes, it is important to act.
“Look into different options of addressing issues,” she said.
Ochab was only one of many delegates who talked and shared their thoughts during the symposium. Those from countries such as Russia, Vietnam, Nigeria and South Africa shared stories and lessons about their fight against the persecution of various religions and beliefs.
At the end of the last plenary session, Mücahit Aydin, rapporteur-judge in the Constitutional Court of Turkey, reflected on his experience at the symposium.
“I particularly enjoyed the diverse background of participants who are scholars, journalists, officials, judges and religious leaders from all around the world,” he said.
However, Aydin agreed with an earlier remark made by another delegate: “It would not hurt to have Muslim voice or more diverse voices in the general sessions. Obviously in the opening session as well.”
Pierre-André Dumas, bishop of Anse-à-Veau et Miragoâne from Haiti, also shared his parting remarks at the end of the fourth plenary session through a translator.
“I would like to say that I discovered that the freedom of religion is not a theory,” Dumas said. “The freedom of religion is to live with more love, receiving the love of God and sharing that love with others.”