A former official from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom encouraged BYU students to advocate for religious freedom during a Q&A on Zoom.
“The biggest threats to religious freedom don’t come from the Supreme Court and don’t start in Washington,” said Kristina Arriaga, the Commission’s former vice chairwoman. “They start with zoning boards. They start with school boards. They start in local government. They start in small, lower court cases. They start with people being censored or boycotted.”
The BYU Freedom of Religion or Belief Club hosted the online event. During the event, Arriaga answered student and faculty questions on how freedom of religion became a right in the United States and how students can uphold religious freedom in their careers.
She said her father escaped oppression from Fidel Castro in Cuba and her mother was imprisoned in a German concentration camp before moving to Puerto Rico. Arriaga said she learned from her parents’ experiences with government persecution that religious freedom is essential to who we are.
She showed examples of Supreme Court cases that fought against religious persecution in the past. She also mentioned several cases she participated in recently to defend religious freedom, adding that a law degree is a good tool for students to have under their belts.
“I don’t defend any particular religion,” Arriaga said. “I defend people’s ability to search for the truth, and once they find the truth, to abide by it. And darn it, if the government puts their ugly, big foot in there, they shouldn’t.”
Another tip Arriaga gave was to avoid cancel culture. She said cancelling people does not foster an environment for free speech. “If we can come up with narratives that invite the other side to see the way we see things, then we can build a common ground. But it’s going to take a lot of effort.”
She emphasized the need for individuals to reach an understanding with the government and with each other. “It starts with you, by the way,” Arriaga said. “You’re in the trenches. This is your fight. It’s a fight of your generation.”
Arriaga told students interested in her field of work that they would see religion or spirituality in everything. She said that even those who deny any form of spirituality have a right to freedom of religion.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend my professional life than to defend that right,” she said.