‘Troubling times for religious freedom’

Annual Religious Liberty Dinner draws thought leaders, policymakers

Washington, D.C., United States | Bettina Krause

Religious freedom can’t be taken for granted. That was the blunt message delivered by Senator Orrin Hatch, senior Republican senator in the United States senate, to a group of religious liberty advocates, ambassadors and congressional representatives gathered April 29 for the 13th annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, D.C.

“These are troubling times for religious freedom, both here in America and around the world,” said Hatch, a seven-term senator from Utah and keynote speaker for the evening. In a broad-ranging speech, he described the social, political and legal forces that are re-shaping religious freedom, once considered an inviolate, foundational human right, but now being cast as “just another” of many different competing rights within society. 

Hatch also spoke about the recent rise in religious violence committed by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the plight of religious minorities in places such as Tajikistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and many other countries. 

The focus of Hatch’s address, though, was on concerns closer to home. Citing a series of Supreme Court decisions and tracing recent legislative actions, Hatch said that the issue of religious freedom was becoming increasingly divisive within American politics and society. He recalled his experience, 20 years earlier, as one of the key sponsors of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law aimed at strengthening religious freedom rights. At the time, this legislation generated an almost unprecedented level of bipartisan support in Washington. But today, said Hatch, similar legislation would be almost impossible to pass. 

Senator Hatch drew a standing ovation when he affirmed that, “Religious freedom is an inalienable right that comes not from government, but from God Himself. If ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,’ then there is no liberty more worth the price.”  

Senator Hatch’s words came less than 12 hours before the release of a new report from a United States advisory body that painted a somber picture of the state of religious freedom around the globe. The US Commission International Religious Freedom, known as USCIRF, released its annual report on the morning following the Religious Liberty Dinner. The report documents religious freedom abuses in 33 countries, revealing what it calls a “humanitarian crisis fueled by waves of terror, intimidation and violence.” 

Elizabeth Cassidy, deputy director for policy and research at USCIRF, was one of the attendees at the Religious Liberty Dinner. When asked what trends the annual USCIRF report would highlight, she pointed to a disturbing increase in religious violence perpetrated by so-called “non-state actors” such as ISIS and Boko Haram. She also highlighted the vast movement of people fleeing zones of religious conflict. The newly released USCIRF report estimates that last year some 13 million people from countries ranging from Syria, to Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Burma, have been forced to leave their homes because of fear of religiously motivated violence.  

Cassidy added that events such as the annual Religious Liberty Dinner play an important part in bringing together a broad range of people and organizations in support of religious freedom.  

The annual Religious Liberty Dinner, held this year at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., has become a Washington tradition for advocacy groups, government representatives and the diplomatic community. It is sponsored jointly by Liberty magazine, the International Religious Liberty Association, the North American Religious Liberty Association, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

Attorney Dwayne Leslie, director of legislative affairs for the Adventist world church, and Melissa Reid, executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association, were two of the key organizers of the dinner. According to Leslie, the annual gathering has developed into one of Washington’s premier religious freedom events. 

“It’s become an invaluable way of bringing together thought leaders and policy makers,” said Leslie. “And this is especially important now, when the public discourse is increasingly filled with debate about the scope of religious freedom, and with tragic examples of religiously motivated violence.” 

Reid agrees, saying that the dinner is an opportunity to highlight the importance of religious freedom for all people, everywhere, and to “reaffirm the Adventist Church’s longstanding commitment to liberty of conscience.”

This year’s dinner marked the final time Dr. John Graz will attend the event as secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association. He plans to retire later this year. A number of speakers during the evening paid tribute to Graz’s many years of passionate, eloquent advocacy for religious freedom. For the past 15 years, he has served as both secretary-general of the IRLA and as director of Public and Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. 

In a brief but moving speech, Graz said he believed “showing that we love and treasure religious freedom is the best answer we can give to religious fanaticism and intolerance.” Later in the evening, in a previously unannounced award, Liberty editor Lincoln Steed presented a plaque to Graz, listing many of his advocacy accomplishments and recognizing him as a “champion of religious freedom throughout the world.”

Three other people were also honored at the dinner: Tiffany Barrans, international legal director and senior legal counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice; Minhea Costoiu, senator of the Republic of Romania and Rector of the University Politehnica of Bucharest, one of southeastern Europe’s largest universities; and civil rights attorney Charles Kester, who passed away last year.  

Barrans, who has defended a number of high-profile international victims of religious persecution, was recognized for her legal and advocacy work in the United States and around the world. She’s currently working on behalf of Christian Pastor Saeed Abedni, who has been held in an Iranian prison since 2012. In accepting her award, Barrans urged more grassroots action, saying that everyone can find ways to promote “respect for the diversity of religious thought and practice.”

Dr. Graz, who presented the award to Costoiu, called him a “symbol of the new generation of Romanian politicians who have dedicated their lives to defend and promote the democratic values of human dignity, human rights and religious freedom.” Through Costoiu’s many years of public service, said Graz, he worked to foster a culture of “mutual respect, acceptance and equality” within Romanian society. 

Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the Adventist world church, delivered a fond and often humorous remembrance of attorney Charles Kester, who died last year of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 46. Kester, who worked closely with the Adventist Church’s legal counsel on many pivotal religious freedom cases across the United States, was not religiously or socially conservative, said McFarland, but he was passionately committed to the principle of religious freedom. McFarland paid tribute to Kester’s skill and dedication, calling him an “unyielding advocate for the underdog.” Kester’s life and work demonstrated a fundamental truth, said McFarland, that “religious liberty knows no political party and it knows no partisanship. It is a universal human right.”