Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work Closes Out Semester Discussing the Future of Freedom of Religion


On May 20, the Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work (IRLLW) at Fordham Law held its fourth and final expert panel discussion in its yearlong “New Frontiers of Human Rights” seminar series. The conversation, “The Future of Freedom of Religion,” was presented in partnership with the Center for Research in Politics and Human Rights at Sophia University in Florence, Italy, and the Observatorio de Derechos Humanos at Universidad de Valladolid in Spain.

The series, which ran throughout the 2021-2022 academic year, examined the interplay between foundational concepts and societal changes to create a dialogue on contemporary challenges for the human rights agenda. Topics discussed in the series included the origins, birth, and incremental development of the human rights discourse from both historical and philosophical perspectives; transhumanism and its impact on human rights protections; and human rights at international borders.

To cap off the semester, IRLLW Director Endy Moraes spoke with Jessica Giles, director of the Project on Interdisciplinary Law and Religion Studies and lecturer at The Open University, UK, and Brian Lepard, the Harold W. Conroy Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska, on what freedom of religion means in today’s global community. They explored how the right to freedom of religion sits within secularism and debated if dialogue between the different interests at stake is possible.

“We know how the right to freedom of religion is complex,” said Moraes, “and it varies within different legal frameworks, especially when we are trying to address international, regional, and national contexts.”

“Aspirationally, we might still be able to regard the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as a universal right,” argued Giles. She highlighted that, while these rights are contemplated in many international agreements and national constitutions, “we needed to do a lot more to bolster their actual enjoyment” she said.

Lepard stressed that religious freedom across the world is under serious threat, and from two directions: “Religious fanaticism [and]extremism … that can take various forms,” and “a more secular worldview that is based on an understandable skepticism about religion, because it has been the instigator of many human rights violations and has led to a demotion of the status of freedom of religion or belief.” He argued that freedom of religion or belief deserves the utmost protection. “[Freedom of religion] goes to the core of who we are as human beings,” said Lepard. “It goes to our moral and spiritual character and our fundamental—even essential—right to determine a moral course for our lives.”

The panelists tackled the intersection between the neutrality of the state and the freedom of conscience, thought, and belief, followed by an analysis of concrete cases from international, regional, and national courts.

Giles highlighted her interest in “how we might think authentically and theologically about human rights.” She sees it problematic to “just speak in a neutral space about human rights” when “80% of the world’s population adheres to one faith or another, or some kind of ethical framework, according to the Pew Research Center.” She suggested a “dialogic approach to rights and how we might base that on a multi-valent reasoning.”

Both Giles and Lepard also argued that thinking of human rights more broadly as a framework can invite and initiate more dialogue moving forward—which they believe can happen through education.

“We must think about the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and what we need to do to support it,” said Giles. “It is one tool in a toolbox, but we need an ethical discourse around that. … We can’t expect individual litigation to support [these freedoms], and need to look at the bigger picture.”

“In looking at issues of freedom of conscience and religion, we do need to distinguish what the role of the law is from what the desirable values we seek to achieve are,” Lepard added. “Law is not always the best mechanism to achieve certain values. … Education can be much more effective, depending on the context.”

Watch the full program here.


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