Brigham Young University (BYU), the largest private religiously-operated university in the USA, was host to 80 prominent academic, political, legal and religious leaders at the annual International Law and Religion Symposium in October.
The event was hosted by the International Centre for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) at the university law school. The university is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons).
Latter-day Saints and those of other faiths in attendance regard the protection of religious freedom to be one of the most pressing issues facing the world today.
Along with the International Religious Liberty Association, an organisation established by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, BYU’s annual symposium is one of few international programs that are specifically dedicated to addressing the increasingly fractious relationship between law and religion in modern society.
Head of the ICLRS, Dr Cole Durham, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, is an internationally renowned legal scholar who has advised governments, including many in former Soviet Eastern Europe, on constitutional provisions dealing with criminal law and religious association.
According to Dr Augusto Zimmermann, a commissioner at the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia and Senior Lecturer at Murdoch Law School, “The subject of law and religion can sound academically dry. However, in Australia and other seemingly free countries around the world, the erosion of religious liberty, though subtle, is becoming increasingly significant.” Dr. Zimmermann was one of the Australian participants.
In Australia, much public discussion has been occurring in recent years over issues that are core to religious belief and practice. Some religious leaders believe that religious views are becoming marginalised in mainstream society. Fundamental observances, such a marriage between a man and a woman and freedom of religious speech, are being substantially eroded by groups favouring alternative lifestyles and political ideologies.
Since the symposium’s inception 19 years ago, more than 900 experts from 120 countries have met at the university to explore the principles and processes which ensure that individual religious freedoms are not curtailed by intrusive government legislation. The role of religion in countries that are newly embracing democracy is also a key feature of the annual discussions.
Keynote speakers at this year’s event included, among other distinguished names, Dr Suzan Johnson Cook, who is the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom; Dr Katrina Lantos Sweet, who is Commissioner at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); and Professor Silvio Ferrari of the law faculties of the universities of Milan (Italy) and Leuven (Belgium).
Dr Zimmermann spoke on the philosophical underpinnings and constitutional implications of religious vilification laws in Australia. He also explained why religious speech should be characterised as ‘political communication’ for the purposes of the implied freedom of political communication in the Australian Constitution.
In addition to Dr Zimmermann, the Australian delegation included Dr Ping Xiong, a lecturer at the University of South Australia Law School, and Neville G Rochow, a South Australian barrister and senior counsel who is also a board member of the Research Unit for the Study of Society, Law and Religion at the University of Adelaide.
Delegates from Australia in previous years have included: Professor Carolyn Evans, Dean of the Melbourne University Law School; Ameer Ali, a professor at the Murdoch University Centre for Muslim Studies and former president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils; and Dr Rachael Kohn, a prominent broadcaster on religion at the ABC.
According to Professor Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director of the ICLRS, third world countries are not the only nations grappling with the role of religion in society.
“The question of religion’s role in democracy and civil society has come to the fore in many peoples’ minds as a result of democratic transformations in the Middle east and North Africa,” she said. “What many may not realize, however, is that these questions are a source of discussion and debate throughout the world, including in the United States.”