On Thursday, I attended the International Religious Liberty Award Dinner in Washington D.C., hosted by the J. Reuben Clark Law Society and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies. The event kicked off with a social hour and talk by Robert T. Smith, Managing Director of ICLRS. He spoke about the importance of properly defining “religious freedom” in the national and international arena. He contrasted “freedom from religion” with “freedom for religion.” In the end, Smith concluded that a better definition of religious freedom is found in James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Madison, Smith argues, expresses a more inclusive understanding of religious freedom which takes account of both concerns.
The night continued with dinner and the presentation of the student writing competition awards. The keynote speech was given by Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom and the President of the Lantos Foundation. She highlighted the work of both organizations as well as the status of religious freedom around the world.
The evening concluded with the presentation of the International Religious Liberty Award to Professor Douglas Laycock. In his remarks, Professor Laycock began by listing recent court decisions involving religious freedom. He then offered this: overall, “the prospects for religious freedom is not good.” The rights of believers to speak and teach the tenets of their faith will be tested. The right of believers to practice their religion is at risk, especially when religious freedom collides with other rights, as illustrated most clearly by the debates involving same-sex marriage as well as the contraceptive mandate. The source of this problem is result of a “long term change in the distribution of public opinion” about religion in the US, whose features include the decline in religious belief and the rise of rival conceptions of rights, such as gay rights. Today, continued Laycock, religious believers and gay rights advocates are locked in a zero-sum game where any gain by either side is a loss to the other. In such a situation, any reconciliation between the two groups seems unlikely. But, as Laycock hinted in his conclusion, there may hope in the future. The struggle for religious freedom has often been characterized by such seemingly intractable problems. But who would have could have possibly conceived, during the height of the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of the previous centuries, that a comprise would eventually be forged and the two sides would even, at time, be united in common causes?