BYU students, law professors attend International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington

Keylla Ortega, a BYU undergraduate student, answers questions and teaches about the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the Religious Freedom Summit. Students represented BYU at the summit from Jan. 29-31. (Lauren Willardson)

Eds: The author participated in the summit.

Seven BYU students represented the university’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 29-31.

The BYU ICLRS also sponsored a luncheon for all summit participants, including foreign dignitaries, ambassadors and religious leaders from around the world. Brett Scharffs, the director for BYU ICLRS, spoke to highlight the work the center is doing for religious freedom and human dignity throughout the world.

Three law students and four undergraduate students from BYU engaged in the summit, networked with attendees, and helped run an ICLRS information booth. Booth visitors, including political, religious and non-profit representatives, learned about the mission of the ICLRS and received materials and reports from the center.

The summit began with a one-day orientation for students on Monday, Jan. 29. The Religious Freedom Institute hosted the orientation as part of their university partnership program.

Jim Bennett, director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s National Center for Religious Freedom Education, explained the institute has always worked closely with the summit, but this was the first year they collaborated to officially launch a university portion.

The university partnership program, including BYU students, meet former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback with Jim Bennett and David Trimble of the Religious Freedom Institute. (Courtesy of the Religious Freedom Institute).

Bennett noted there was a wide variety of universities represented. Ivy League, liberal arts colleges, private faith-based universities and more participated in the summit.

“The strength of the program is really the plurality of perspectives … the students as well as the universities that are represented,” Bennett said.

While the summit itself focused on networking and advocacy, the university orientation focused on religious freedom education.

“When people think of religious freedom, they for obvious reasons think of advocacy, and advocacy’s an important part … The RFI student programs actually allow you to ground your advocacy in the first principles of religious freedom,” Bennett said.

He noted this education-before-advocacy approach is starting to resonate. The IRF summit was very pleased with the program’s results, so they have every intention to repeat it next year. 

“For me just getting to learn the very, very basics of just what religious freedom is and what it isn’t was a really good process for the rest of the week,” Ella Kennedy, a BYU undergraduate student studying business, said.

Former U.S. Senator, Ambassador Sam Brownback, addresses foreign dignitaries and students at the Embassy of Hungary on Jan. 29 as part of the International Religious Freedom Summit. (Lauren Willardson).

The night of Jan. 29, students from the university program attended the summit’s opening ceremonies at the Embassy of Hungary. Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. Szabolcs Takács, former U.S. Senator and summit co-chair Ambassador Sam Brownback and others addressed the group.

Speaking of genocide and religious persecution, Ambassador Sam Brownback said, “It’s not enough to just say ‘never again,’ which we do all the time. Never again just seems to be here we go again. We’ve got to say, ‘No, look, here’s a way to stop this.’ It’s religious freedom.”

Ambassador Brownback said this year’s summit was the fourth they have held and by far the largest and most publicized. He encouraged participants not to wait for someone to take the lead on religious freedom issues, but to see what needs to be done and just do it.

“Remember 80% of the world claims a religious faith. We’ve got the numbers, we just haven’t been organized. We haven’t gone at it. And every faith community in the world is currently facing religious persecution somewhere. Every majority somewhere is a minority somewhere else,” Ambassador Brownback said.

Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called Ambassador Brownback the greatest champion of religious liberty in the world during the Trump administration.

BYU undergrad and law students engaged with notable visitors in large plenary sessions and smaller breakout instruction. Other experiences included a visit to the Holocaust Museum, optional viewing of unedited footage from the Hamas invasion on Oct. 7, 2023 and closing ceremonies with remarks from a Holocaust survivor at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

BYU Law students Elyse Slabaugh and Connor Hansen greet Holocaust survivor Ruth Cohen at the U.S. Institute for Peace. (Courtesy of Elyse Slabaugh).

“Going to these conferences is always really cool because you just meet so many cool people and make connections that hopefully lead to some future opportunities,” Elyse Slabaugh, a third-year BYU law student, said.

Notable speakers from the U.S. included current Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, former U.S. Senator Newt Gingrich, U.S. Senator James Langford and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart.

The executive editor for Deseret News, Doug Wilks, also spoke, along with Jonathan Ammons, associate director of Public and International Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“If those of us that cherish religious liberty will simply continue to give voice — if we’ll continue to pair our values with the priorities of our nations … we’ll have more of those days where the captives are set free and people will be able to live in the freedom, and in the daylight of the religious liberty that so many of us have enjoyed and upon which, I believe, the future of mankind depends,” former Vice President Mike Pence said.

In his remarks, he quoted Galatians 6:9 and encouraged participants to not be “weary in well-doing,” reminding them of the harvest to come if they do not give up.

Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence encourages summit participants to not give up on freedom of religion. He addressed the summit on Jan. 30. (Lauren Willardson)

“Coming from a country that was literally founded by freedom of religion, I would tell you never give up hope. Because when we make the cause of the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience our cause, I think we make His work on this earth our own, and so we never fight alone,” former Vice President Mike Pence said.

After the summit, BYU participants reflected on how the experience will help them in a variety of fields.

“I am going to go into business, and I hope that I’ll be able to promote corporate conscience and that I’ll be able to bring my faith to work, (and) help other people do the same,” Kennedy said. “What a great way to start religious freedom abroad by making American companies more religiously accepting.”

After being involved with the ICLRS at BYU for five years, Elyse Slabaugh encouraged other students to get involved as well.

“Don’t think you have to be an expert at all to participate in these things because the whole purpose is educational … I think religious freedom is for everyone so everyone should try and get involved if they can,” Slabaugh said.

Jim Bennett from RFI echoed Slabaugh, encouraging more participants in next year’s university partnership program.

“We need a new generation of voices and individuals committed to this so that they can articulate it well and wade through some of the distractions, so that we can protect this really fundamental human right for future generations,” Bennett said.

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