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Religious Freedom Summit Held at the Columbus School of Law

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by Jason Miller, 3L at the Columbus School of Law

As a prelude to the visit of Pope Francis to The Catholic University of America, approximately two-hundred guests gathered together at the Columbus School of Law for a conversation on the state of religious liberty both at home and abroad. Created as a joint program between Baylor University and The Catholic University of America, the conference brought Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic leaders together to emphasize the relationship between religion and individual freedom. The event was also co-sponsored by the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project, with generous support by the Knights of Columbus.

The Catholic University of America’s President, John Garvey, was on hand to provide introductory remarks on the role of religious liberty as a human right. Following President Garvey’s remarks, the Most Reverend William E. Lori, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, presented the opening address. The Archbishop emphasized religious liberty as the cornerstone of human dignity as he expounded on the principles found in Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom. Archbishop Lori asserted that the only way to defend religion as a human right is to be ecumenical and work with all faiths. Using the analogy of a cake, Archbishop Lori showed the layer nature of religious liberty as rooted in faith and reason. Archbishop Lori concluded with a call to society to practice true religious tolerance for all. Otherwise, to quote Pope Benedict, society would descend into “the dictatorship of relativism”.

Following the Archbishop’s address, Dr. Thomas Farr, the Director of the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project, moderated a panel of three guests who analyzed the challenges facing religious liberty today. Two of the panelists, Commissioner Daniel Mark of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and Dr. John Haldane, Philosophy Professor at Baylor and The University of St. Andrews, discussed religious freedom internationally, particularly in the Middle East, as coming under attack. They noted that nearly three quarters of the world’s population live in regions where religious freedom does not exist.

The third panelist was Mark Rienzi, a member of the CUA Law faculty, who sounded an optimistic note believing that a “live and let live” attitude could resolve most of the religious freedom conflicts currently threatening faiths around the world.

Following a luncheon for guests and panelists, former Congressman Frank Wolf gave a brief update on the grim state of religious liberty in several regions of the world. The audience then heard several harrowing first-hand accounts of religious persecution in Syria and China. First, a husband and wife who recently escaped persecution by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) in Syria, spoke of the horrors they witnessed taking place against people of faith in the Middle East. The shocking accounts of current religious persecution continued as a Chinese pastor detailed her escape from China after having been tortured, put through labor re-education camps, and sent to prison without any formal judicial proceedings. Congressman Wolf closed the session with a call to end the genocide by ISIS.

The final panel, moderated by Dr. Timothy Shah, Associate Director, Religious Freedom Project, Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, examined potential solutions to the significant challenges presented in the earlier panels. Dr. Paul Marshall of The Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, shared of his experiences in Indonesia working with various faith groups to build houses of worship and foster community relations. Dr. Thomas Farr spoke about his experience influencing the U.S. State Department to integrate religious freedom concerns into American foreign policy. Finally, Kristina Arriaga, of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (where Professor Rienzi also works as Senior Counsel) shared practical tips on how to promote religious liberty. The conclusion of the panel could best be summed up in the words of Dr. Farr, “whatever area of law you go into - defend religious liberty.”

The closing address was given by The Honorable Ken Starr, President and Chancellor of Baylor University. Judge Starr grounded his talk in four propositions on which American legal culture is founded - non-coercion of conscience, avoiding soft discrimination of religion, government protection of religion, and government avoidance of interference with faith-based ministries. Judge Starr further detailed how these propositions inform the current religious liberty situation in America. Fittingly, the closing blessing was given by Father Behnam Benoka, the Vice Rector of St. Peter Seminary for a Chaldean Patriarchate, who runs a refugee camp for fleeing Christians in Iraq. Father Benoka, who has received support from Pope Francis for his work, gave a powerful closing benediction for the persecuted churches in the Middle East and inspired those present to leave with a desire to work harder to defend the cause of religious liberty.

To view the conference on the CUA Law Video Channel click here.