BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Faith communities and religious service groups change lives around the world, organizing soccer teams for refugee children and providing hygiene kits to victims of hurricanes.
This work is possible, in part, because of religious freedom protections, which enable personal religious convictions to lead to public service.
“Without the freedom to practice our faith, including serving those in need in the way our faith directs, the church and its members, and many other faith communities, could not effectively serve the poor and do the great work they do in society at large,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday, delivering his remarks in Spanish at a G20 Interfaith Forum on religious contributions to the G20 agenda.
Religiously inspired service is needed now more than ever before, according to forum participants. Around the world, millions of people lack food, clothes and shelter.
But it's getting harder to discuss and enact religious freedom laws that would allow faith groups to address increasing social needs, forum panelists said. Citing legal challenges like the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the United States, they explained that religious freedom is losing public support because, at times, it has been used to only protect certain groups and can appear to foster intolerance.
To solve complex legal clashes and boost support for religious freedom, faith leaders must join with policymakers and legal scholars to find ways to protect freedom and equality at the same time, said Joelle Fiss, a human rights analyst and member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's panel of experts on freedom of religion.
“We must find a solution where we can maximize both rights," she said. “What we should try and really do is have our cake and eat it."
Religious freedom is often called a grandparent right, because it’s been widely supported for many centuries and informs newer human rights. Around 120 national constitutions mention it, said Ganoune Diop, secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association.
“This is really a universal value,” he said during a panel on religion and anti-discrimination laws, where he was joined by Fiss and other legal experts.
But like human grandparents, religious freedom is sometimes neglected. Political leaders may claim to support it, but around 80 percent of the world’s population lives in places that significantly restrict religious practice.
Religious freedom “is craved in many parts of the world by believers and nonbelievers,” Fiss said.
Pew Research Center recently reported that 83 countries had high or very high levels of restrictions on religion in 2016, "whether resulting from government actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups." That figure is up from 80 in 2015 and 58 in 2007, Pew reported.
Legal protections don’t guarantee a reduction in social stigma, which continues to affect smaller faith groups in countries like Brazil, said Ana Maria Celis Brunet, who works for the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies and is based in Chile.
During her presentation at the G20 Interfaith Forum, she showed a picture of coffee plants growing in the shade of tall trees. She compared the Catholic Church in Brazil to the trees, noting that it enjoys more power and cultural significance than other religious communities.
“Catholic preeminence might make some people feel they’re overwhelmed and can’t grow in their freedom of religion,” Brunet said.
Also like grandparents, religious freedom is, at times, seen as out of step with modern life, Fiss said. People who are passionate about LGBT or women’s rights lose interest in religious liberty when faith leaders speak out against same-sex marriage or defend traditional gender roles.
To these activists, “religious freedom is an old right which belongs to previous centuries in the history of nation building. It no longer embodies the modern rights such as social justice,” she said.
Religious groups further harm their public image when they get caught up in scandal, such as the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Brunet said. People of faith can't demand better treatment by government leaders and society if they're going to mistreat members of their community.
In general, religious freedom is dealing with a public relations crisis, Elder Christofferson said.
“It is becoming increasingly common for people to think that religion and religious freedom are some kind of burden on society. That is simply not true,” he said.
Looking to the future
The G20 Interfaith Forum is aimed at providing recommendations to the secular G20, a gathering of leaders from the European Union and 19 other top global economies. Participants discuss issues like climate change and human trafficking, drawing on their own religious traditions and professional experiences for success stories and policy suggestions.
The goal is to explore the ethical dimensions of major political and economic debates, the Deseret News reported earlier this week.
The international conference is also an opportunity to celebrate the good that faith does in the world. Speakers shared stories of faith-driven social programs, describing how Muslims in Africa promote gender equity and Catholics in South America promote resource conservation in the Amazon River region. They argued that religion promotes moral behavior and economic prosperity.
“Religious organizations and faith communities have a vital role to play in alleviating poverty and helping people live healthier, happier and more productive lives,” Elder Christofferson said.
Comments like these explain why G20 Interfaith Forum participants are so committed to rejuvenating religious freedom protections and showing that protecting personal faith can be part of building a more tolerant world.
Moving forward, faith leaders should continue seeking policies that respect religious freedom and encourage equality, experts said. Faith groups shouldn’t always get what they want, but they should be allowed a place in the public square.
“We have to respect everyone’s right to believe what they want to believe, but the manifestation (of personal beliefs) can’t undermine or destroy the lives of others,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief.
Instead of agonizing over how to balance religious and LGBT rights or personal freedom and tolerance, we can commit to find ways to maximize rights within our legal framework, Fiss said.
“This (debate about maximizing rights) is the debate of our times,” she said. “How will it occur? Time will tell. We’re right at the beginning.”