Washington, District of Columbia, United States | Mark A. Kellner/ANN

“Religious liberty is one of the most important issues on the world’s agenda today,” said United States Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who made the case for both freedom of religion and the right not to choose one, at a dinner sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association, “Liberty” magazine and the North American Religious Liberty Association, three religious freedom outreaches sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“Those of us who are people of faith are so aware of what that means in our lives that it is sometimes a challenge for us to understand our obligations to make space for nonbelievers,” Sen. Clinton, who was elected to a six-year Senate term in 2000, said to an audience of more than 200. This is the third annual religious liberty dinner sponsored by the IRLA and Liberty magazine; all three have been held in the historic Senate Caucus Room on Capitol Hill.

Calling the Seventh-day Adventist Church a “vital force” for religious freedom at home and abroad, Sen. Clinton lauded the involvement of the church, its 100-year-old “Liberty” magazine, and the International Religious Liberty Association, which the church organized in 1893. IRLA became a non-sectarian organization in 1946 and has among its board members representatives of many different faith communities.

This was the first personal appearance by Sen. Clinton at the dinner. Last year she offered a recorded greeting to the group which was circulated to Adventist congregations in North America. Previous speakers at the event included Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. President George W. Bush has also sent video greetings to the Adventist Church.

Sen. Clinton said, “With 14 million church members worldwide and 1 million here in the United States, you understand very well the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It is your work, often, on the front lines of religious liberty that helps to tell the rest of the world of the story of the oppressed and in so many ways denied their rights to live and believe as they choose. “

She added, “I also want to thank the church for the work you do for people in need here in our country and indeed around the world. Your health care system—something I care deeply about—is a great example of your living your faith.”

Sen. Clinton also noted the Adventist congregation in Pearl River, New York, whose “soup kitchen and food pantry had served over 1,800 children and over 2,100 adults, and I thought that it was so appropriate that they would come to give thanks for their ability to provide this necessary service for others.”

James Standish, executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association, praised Sen. Clinton for her steadfast support of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill the Adventist Church supports. Standish noted that, in the United States, three Adventists every day, on average, lose their jobs over Sabbath-keeping issues. The WRFA is designed to protect the rights of people of faith, including Sabbath-keepers, in the workplace.

Standish also commended Sen. Clinton for promoting religious freedom abroad and at home, the latter as a co-sponsor of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, or WRFA, reintroduced last month by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a 2004 U.S. presidential candidate, and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

“I hope that this ... will be the year that we will be successful in passing this,” Sen. Clinton told the audience which included diplomats from over 30 nations, representatives from the White House, the U.S. Department of Justice, 11 representatives from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Adventist religious liberty workers, and many regional world presidents of the Adventist Church, along with representatives of other faiths, including Islamic, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant groups.

Sen. Clinton also commented on the late Pope John Paul II, whom she said recognized the importance of religious freedom throughout the world.

She also praised moves toward democracy in both Iraq and Afghanistan and said religious freedom must be a part of the new Iraq: “We must support their efforts to create a democratic government that does protect religious freedom as they attempt to fashion a constitution and a system of government that provides for their beliefs and their tenets of faith, but does so in a context of respect for others,” Sen. Clinton said.

“It runs against their traditions in many instances, and they will have to be very statesmanlike in order to create new space for diversity, for pluralism, for tolerance. And we must help them accomplish that,” she added.

The dinner also featured awards to several people who have helped in the struggle for religious freedom: Bert B. Beach, former Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the world church; Roger W. Coon, a grassroots activist for religious freedom; Roland Hegstad, longtime Liberty editor; Richard L. Fenn, a retired religious liberty director for the Adventist Church; and Amb. Robert Seiple, former head of World Vision and the first United States ambassador for religious freedom.