Freedom of Religion or Belief: A human right of local, national and global importance

Freedom of Religion or Belief: A human right of local, national and global importance

September 4, 2018

This August, the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI) gathered 2,300 civil society participants for the 67th UN DPI NGO Conference, a signature, quasi-annual event that DPI organizes with civil society organizations to reflect on relevant UN themes. This year’s conference  convened numerous workshops and roundtables around the theme “We the Peoples”, exploring the ways in which civil society contributes to finding global solutions to global concerns, such as extending human rights, empowering women and girls, enhancing climate action, encouraging global citizenship, furthering youth leaders and strengthening multilateralism, together with and within the United Nations system.  

One of these workshops, “Many Faiths, One Belief”, focused specifically on the importance of and progress around Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the landmark declaration of international law and human rights signed 70 years ago this December. Article 18 expressly protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion:

Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

While the ways in which Article 18 protects individuals and religious communities varies from country to country in terms of its implementation, clearly it remains vital to uphold and protect this right. As expressed by the workshop organizer, Ryan Koch of LDS Charities, “people of every faith tradition are united in their belief that they should be able to worship as they see fit. Unfortunately, in many fora today, people of faith must ‘check their religion at the door’, so as not to offend any individual or group.” The workshop examined the ways in which Article 18 is applied at various levels of society, from internationally to locally. In addition to LDS Charities, the workshop was co-sponsored by the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Universal Peace Federation and the Baha’i International Community.

Representing the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Ms. Rebecca Blachly, Director of The Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C., served as the panelist presenting a case study from a national level perspective.

Rebecca Blachly, Director of the Office of Goverment Relations, addresses the workshop audience.

She focused her remarks on how faith-based organizations and governments interact on freedom of religion and belief in the United States government’s context. Drawing on her long expertise at the confluence of government and faith-based actor interaction, both as a formal official of the U.S. State Department, and also currently as the Director of Government Relations representing The Presiding Bishop in Washington, D.C.,  Rebecca presented the following points:

  • The work of advocates focused on religious freedom at the national level has been incredibly effective, and it is why we have the infrastructure and policy focus that we have today as a government. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act established the Ambassador at-large for International Religious Freedom, the Office of International Religious Freedom, as well as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The 2016 Wolf amendment provided some updates and refinements as well.
  • In the U.S. context, this means advocating to Congress to continue to ensure that there is ongoing support for religious freedom and champions who can push the issue.
  • In the context of the Administration, this often means partnership. Sharing information and concerns, bringing that on the ground perspective, sharing stories.
  • The work of advancing international religious freedom has been effective because of coalitions – these coalitions are diverse and well-organized.
  • Faith-based advocacy is most effective religious communities recognize that religious freedom only exists within the context of protection for all human rights. We must remain unified in urging governments to protect religious freedom for all and guaranteeing all human rights.
  • Religious freedom presupposes religious literacy. It is important for faith communities to do all we can to educate people about our own and other religious traditions.
  • Freedom of religion is important – but it is not the only way for policymakers to think about religion. We would encourage policymakers to engage religious actors on a range of issues where they have influence, such as healthcare, education, the environment, and peace and conflict issues. Religious freedom is only one lens through which to view religion.
  • It is critical to address the global migration crisis in order to provide religious freedom protections for people around the world. Refugees are fleeing persecution – including religious persecution – and as a global community we need to do more to solve this humanitarian crisis. The U.S. in particular needs to maintain its commitment to refugee resettlement.
  • We should all continue to work towards the SDGs – these will enable people to worship freely, and to live meaningful and full lives. Religious freedom is a part of global development.

Joining Rebecca on the panel were experts who presented their perspectives from other levels of engagement. They were Professor Brett Scharffs, Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University, presenting on freedom of religion and belief protections internationally; Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Senior Adviser in the Community Affairs Unit of NYC Mayor de Blasio, presenting a New York City local government focus; and Richard Jordan, UN representative for International Council for Caring Communities (and a fellow Episcopalian), presenting on civil society organizations engaging with UN member states on this issue. The panel was moderated by Kelsey Zorzi, Chair of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Director for Advocacy of Global Religious Freedom of ADF International.

The workshop panel, left to right: R. Blachly; B. Scharffs; K. Zorzi (moderator); S. Sayeed; R. Jordan

How important is Article 18 on freedom of religion and belief, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to our Church? Individual Episcopalians, and The Episcopal Church through General Convention, were instrumental in developing and supporting the Declaration since its beginnings. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the Declaration’s drafting committee. Other Episcopalians ensured that the Declaration, once signed, was affirmed and studied. In 1949, General Convention adopted a resolution supporting the Declaration and outlining follow up actions. It urged Episcopalians to study the Declaration and called for the preparation of study materials for church groups. It called on Episcopalians, in studying the Declaration, to determine how to fulfill its objectives in their own lives. It also encouraged continued activity of the United States government along related lines. 

Given that history, Rebecca’s presentation, the ongoing work of our Office of Government Relations and other members of the Presiding Bishop’s staff, and the efforts of many other Episcopalians all act in conjunction to support freedom of religion and belief, with long-held General Convention support. As a very early endorser of the Declaration, The Episcopal Church is well-placed to continue its advocacy around freedom of religion or belief in a variety of contexts and levels of society. We give thanks to God for this opportunity to join our fellow faith-based actors at the United Nations in demonstrating the importance of Article 18 and the Universal Declaration, locally, nationally and globally, and for our Church, via this year’s UN DPI NGO Conference.

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