by Sabrina E. Dent
There is nothing new about the fight to protect religious freedom in the United States. In the 1600s, the Puritans, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans and many other groups fought for the right to exercise their freedom of conscience. Notable individuals such as William Penn (Quaker, author and founder of Pennsylvania) and Roger Williams (Puritan minister, strong advocate for the separation of church and state and founder of Rhode Island) are often recognized for their contributions to advancing religious freedom in the colonial era. In light of the complexities and darkness of this time period — which includes the enslavement of Africans and First Nations communities — there were glimmers of hope for a promising future when it came to protecting the religious rights of certain individuals and groups.
Fast forward to the 1930s and 1940s, organizations like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism were founded to carry the mantle of protecting religious freedom and promoting social justice. In the 1980s and 1990s, individuals like Charles C. Haynes, Ph.D., founder of the Religious Freedom Center, and Rabbi David Saperstein, fourth U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (2014 – 2017) were actively engaged religious and thought leaders fighting to protect this First Amendment right by advocating for education about religion in schools, creating consensus documents about religion and law and implementing policy efforts. Similar to any type of social justice work, advocacy work for religious freedom requires a strong commitment to the mission of protecting this constitutional and human right for all people.
Every day, news stories flood media outlets that remind us why religious freedom work is necessary. Most importantly, these stories serve as reminders why existing thought leaders must engage, educate and equip a younger generation of advocates to do this work. If we are serious about protecting religious freedom and educating the public about religion, law and civic engagement, we must be intentional in reaching audiences that may not always look, think, act or respond like us. Given the changing religious landscape of the United States in 2019, if religious freedom advocacy spaces are still occupied by a homogeneous group of individuals, then we are failing to do this work inclusive of all perspectives. This critical work on behalf and in support of humanity requires the wisdom, intelligence and tenacity of multiple generations, cultures and racial and religious identities. The experiences of one group are not enough to advance the rights and concerns for all: Every religious tradition and worldview has different needs, but everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and belief. A movement without this type of cross-generational and intersectional leadership will only last for a moment while the issues will continue for many more lifetimes.
Despite what some people believe, this is not an impossible task. Since June 2016, the Religious Freedom Center has hosted training sessions for local interns to learn more about religious freedom from a historical perspective and contemporary context. Even though this program was designed to introduce college-aged students to this work, graduate students and seasoned religious liberty professionals expressed a strong interest in these sessions. In July 2018, we expanded the training program by inviting legal experts and practitioners who represent many perspectives about religious freedom in their local and national context. Interns learned about the role of religion in public life while exploring our three areas of competency: legal literacy, religious literacy and effective dialogue.
This year, we broadened our scope of presenters by inviting religious liberty experts, nonprofit organization heads and a host of other professionals who identify with many of the underrepresented voices and perspectives in this field. We had 25 participants who identified from many racial, religious, educational and cultural backgrounds. Over the three sessions, we were able to hear their concerns, hopes and curiosities about the future of religious freedom domestically and internationally.
Session one, “Understanding Religious Liberty and Religious Identity,” featured presentations by Haynes, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Kristina Arriaga and Benjamin Marcus, religious literacy specialist with the Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center.
In session two, “Engaging the Data on Religion and Exploring Civil Dialogue,” participants heard from Jioni Palmer with the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Rachel Laser, president and CEO at AU. Laser presented data from the PRRI’s 2019 survey that found an increase in support for religiously based discrimination against racial and religious minorities as well as members of the LGBTQIA community. The Rev. Kristen Farrington, the Religious Freedom Center’s civil dialogue specialist, introduced the practical skills of dialogue to participants, emphasizing the importance of everyone’s narrative, experiences and right to freedom of conscience.
To conclude the summer bootcamp, our third session, “Broadening Our Scope and Taking Action,” introduced interns to Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and Usra Ghazi, director of policy and programs at America Indivisible. Their powerful presentations emphasized the contributions of African Americans as well as Muslim and Sikh American organizations working to advance religious freedom at the intersection of civic health advocacy, social justice and interfaith cooperation.
The series ended with a one-hour guided Religious Freedom Tour in the Newseum by our colleague Blair Forlaw. This tour highlights the many stories in the exhibits where individuals have, over time, applied the five freedoms — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — to affirm their human rights and right to freedom of conscience.
For four years, the Summer Bootcamp for Interns has been an invaluable program of the Religious Freedom Center. Participants offered the following feedback:
“The seminar was incredibly eye-opening, informative and effective. I learned a lot about religious liberty in the U.S. and came away with a much more thorough knowledge of religious freedom and the legal distinctions between separation of church and state. The training has already helped me explain religious freedom topics to others as well as apply the civil dialogue training to controversial conversations.”
“I found the diversity of perspective to be refreshing. I loved the wide-reaching approaches towards a similar issue.”
Our mission to educate the public about religious freedom as a constitutional and human right for people of all religions and none is a message that we must begin at an earlier age if we hope to raise the next generation of religious freedom advocates.
Reflecting on the legacy of Haynes and the center, its core purpose has always been to reach the young by educating those who hold influential leadership roles in society, whether they are educators, religious and civic leaders or business leaders. The Summer Bootcamp program is one way we show our commitment to equipping young people to exercise their rights, responsibilities and respect towards one another as informed and engaged citizens. For us, America represents a beautiful and eclectic tapestry comprised of many races, ethnicities, cultures, political views, economic backgrounds, religious traditions and worldviews — thus, the same diversity is necessary in raising the next generation of thought leaders who will be intentional in considering the concerns of all people when creating laws and policies that impact religious freedom issues. This is the America we strive to be now and in the future.
Dr. Sabrina Dent is director of programs and partnerships at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: [email protected].