By McKell Park and Andrea Zapata
BYU’s Religious Freedom Annual Review addressed multiple religious topics under this year’s theme of “Living Peaceably: Religious Freedom as a Foundation for Civic Harmony” on June 16 at the BYU Conference Center.
Keynote speakers and moderators included Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-say Saints; executive vice president of The New York Board of Rabbis Rabbi Joseph Potasnik; Yair Rosenberg, a writer for The Atlantic; and Elizabeth Clark, associate director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
During the conference, panelists and keynote speakers discussed religious freedom and its importance today, and shared their experiences on coming from different backgrounds and religious upbringings.
“Our hope is that you leave more empowered, more positive about the ways we can live as peacemakers,” said Brett G. Scharffs, the director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies. “Listen carefully and learn from people with whom you disagree, because we believe religious freedom can actually bring us together and it can become a foundation for civic harmony.”
Building bridges with LGBTQ groups, religion and criminal justice
Panelists discussed how religious freedom unites people and how it can be used to give a sense of belonging to others. Speakers such as Long Island University professor Dalia Fahmy talked about the dangers of islamophobia and racial profiling. She shared her personal experience dealing with it.
The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen detailed how she did not come out as gay until she was 40 years old and already had a full career as a member of the clergy. She emphasized how these two parts of her identity are compatible and said her hopes are to make the LGBTQ community feel welcome when it comes to religion.
“It is not because I am clergy that I am passionate about religious freedom, it is because I am LGBTQ and an advocate for LGBT youth,” the Rev. Edmonds-Allen said. “I believe that religious freedom is the very best hope for the world and for people like me, who are LGBT.”
In a breakout session, speakers including Elder Jeremy R. Jaggi of the Church’s Quorum of the Seventy, discussed the positive role of religion in criminal justice.
“We are training churches to come outside of their four walls so that they can work with other organizations who are specialized on these topics,” the Rev. Dr. Denise Strothers said. “Just because we are spiritual leaders does not mean that we know how to deal with all issues.”
The Rev. Dr. Strothers explained how there is a stigma among religious people around criminal justice, and how it needs to be stopped and replaced by understanding and willingness to having open conversations about it.
“As people in the church, we can be come judgmental people because we don’t understand what we don’t know,” she said. “The first thing you need to do is remove the stigma and the same, we encourage people to begin teaching on criminal justice to generate conversations.”
Religious partnerships for stronger communities
In the concluding session of the conference, Elder Cook moderated a panel discussing the role of religious groups in society and how they can benefit communities.
The discussion was centered on two principles of religious freedom: how religious accountability benefits secular society and the multitude of good works that religion inspires people of faith to perform on behalf of others.
The panelists included Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Rev. A.R. Bernard, the Rev. Dr. Que English and Elder David L. Buckner.
The panelists, three of whom belong to the Commission of Religious Leaders of New York, discussed the importance of morality and combating injustices in society and government.
“We’re going to tackle these injustices together, because if it pains the heart of God, surely it pains our heart, too,” English said. “It’s not about religion, it’s about the needs of humanity and what we need to do together to address it.”
The group also addressed the importance of religion for a generation blurring the lines between religion and spirituality.
“We are spiritual by nature, we have attributes and faculties that are not physical and religion codifies these attributes into thought, ritual and practice,” Bernard said.
Potasnik touched on the importance of democracy and liberty in the United States and how religious freedom is being tested by those who are highly educated but look down on people of faith.
“You can disagree with me, but don’t denigrate me,” Potasnik said. “Education can make us smart but not necessarily moral. We have to be that part of the equation that inserts morality.”
Bernard agreed that religious freedom goes beyond the ability to worship.
“It means also that I shouldn’t have to compromise my core values and beliefs and practices to conform to culture,” Bernard said.
The group also spoke about what they are doing to help in their own communities.
Bernard told the audience that because of their partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his organization was able to feed 125,000 people in New York City following the pandemic. Potasnik noted the importance of letting go of religious labels and working together to help humanity.
“It’s about opening doors for one another so someone else can enter,” Potasnik said. “We can walk on separate paths in our respective houses of worship but there comes that moment when all of us know we have to walk on that path of humanity together as one family.”