Religious Freedom Annual Review 2020: Reports on the Sessions

Jane Wise, an Associate Director of the International Center of Law and Religion Studies, has provided summaries of the three sessions of the 2020 Religious Freedom Annual Review.

Opening Session 1, Wednesday 17 June 2020 

“I am a person of faith. I fundamentally view the world with a lens that accounts for mercy and love and compassion, and I view power in that lens as well,” said Dr. Alaa Murabit at the beginning of her address, and I started to love her.

Dr. Alaa Murabit, physician, new mother (“I’m not getting enough sleep” she smiled), Canadian, Muslim, UN High Level Commissioner, and one of seventeen eminent world figures appointed by the UN Secretary-General to advocate and mobilize action on the Sustainable Development Goals was the first speaker of three sessions for the 2020 Religious Freedom Annual Review.

One of eleven children born to devout Muslim parents, Murabit was taught as a child that “God is more merciful than your parents’ times 100,” and “God is always looking for ways to support and to excuse you and to see the good in you.” This gave Murabit a feeling of power that was transformational: she had a sacred space with God and a place to go with problems. “It gave me the sense of infinite possibility that even if I made a mistake, I could apologize. If I wanted to try something, I should just go for it.”

After school she went to the hospital where her general surgeon father worked and studied in the library, but the room she loved best was the hospital’s prayer room. Murabit felt incredibly powerful in that room where so many people had wrestled in the midst of tragedy, and yet found a moment of peace. That prayer room’s walls were saturated with prayers from believers and nonbelievers, both desperate and thankful. Murabit felt those walls had witnessed “the most intimate part of our humanity,” and it was there where her appreciation for faith began, recognizing that faith is a powerful motivator for mercy, for good, and for compassion.

As an adult after a lengthy study of religion, Murabit looks at religious freedom as critical within religious communities so questions can be asked about decisions made. “It’s particularly important for women who have that freedom of faith, that freedom of thought, to say: we’re going to analyze this, we’re going to lead this we’re going to communicate this differently; we’re going to interpret this differently, and we’re going to hold power in this space that traditionally and historically has omitted us intentionally because of the fact that we are powerful.”

Murabit asks, “If you are a person of faith, how are you leveraging your faith to ensure equality? How are you leveraging what you know, to create compassion and mercy and challenge a lot of what we’ve been taught about power and strength? How are you leveraging your faith, and I’ll take it even a step further to say, even if you do not have a faith community, but in whatever space you hold power, if it’s a university, if it’s your faith community, if it’s your own home, especially your own home, how are you leveraging that sphere of power that you own to create opportunity and space for others to have difficult conversations?”

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, framed his remarks around the Parable of the Prodigal Son, particularly when the Prodigal “began to be in want” because of a terrible famine causing hunger and the loss of his resources and associates. He reflected on his current state, and the Prodigal “came to himself,” by remembering the life he had come from. He determined he “would arise and go to my father.”

Elder Bednar sees the famine in the parable as a catalyst to change and very like the difficult events surrounding COVID-19. He hoped our 2020 turmoil would also serve as a “wake-up” call.

He told of meeting with a beloved elderly associate, Elder Robert Hales, who was recovering from a serious illness. “What lessons have you learned as you have grown older and been constrained by decreased physical capacity?” Elder Bednar asked.

Elder Hales paused for a moment and responded, “When you cannot do what you have always done, then you only do what matters most.” Here was an answer learned through physical suffering and spiritual searching. Can we turn the restraints and limitation of COVID-19 into blessings? Will it be a wake-up call for us to evaluate what is most important in our lives?

The pandemic has severely limited religious associations to gather and worship together, restrictions that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abided by. Elder Bednar shared some of his reflections over these restrictions and stated that even in a crisis, government power cannot be unlimited, that religious freedom should be the paramount right among our fundamental rights, that this right is fragile and must be balanced with other societal interests.

Religious freedom is essential and must be treated as such. “In our understandable desire to combat COVID-19, we, too, as a society may have forgotten something about who we are and what is most precious,” Elder Bednar stated. “Perhaps we have not fully remembered that faith and the right to exercise it are central to our identity as believers and to all that we deem good and right and worthy of protection.”

Moderated Discussion, Thursday 18 June 2020 – “Religion’s Roles in Uniting America and Addressing the Crisis”

Eye-opening! Democrat and Republican Senators working together to “make deals” and being successful! Bipartisan politics peaceful! Agreement on how to work on COVID-19, racial, and economic crises!

Brett Scharffs moderated a question and answer session with Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). There was laughter, bon-homie, and appreciation for each other throughout Thursday’s session with agreement on the importance of empathy, compassion, and humility.

Has there been a breakdown of values in the country?

Sinema: I think the challenge is it’s not that our values aren’t good, it’s that they haven’t been shared equitably for everybody. And that’s the key. If you believe in equality and freedom for all, then you have to literally mean that FOR ALL. So right now, in the midst of a movement around Black Lives Matter, it is about understanding the values that we all share and hold dear and haven’t been equitably shared across our community. And so, it’s not that our values are wrong, it’s that we haven’t done a good job of living them out.”

Lee: I strongly agree with that.

Has the Coronavirus crisis made bipartisan cooperation easier or more difficult?

Lee: “There is a premise in Washington that this deeply rooted bipartisan conflict results in intransigence. And it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this results from petulance on the part of individual members who just want to be disagreeable. I think it’s an oversimplification and in many ways a great distortion of what happens. There are some areas where the two parties disagree. There are a whole lot where we don’t, and particularly in connection with the Coronavirus. Look at the phase three legislation. This is a little bit more money than I’ve ever seen in one bill, nearly two and a half-trillion dollars, and yet it passed without any dissenting vote. This was a bipartisan compromise put together in a relatively short period of time. It doesn’t mean it was perfect, but it was a significant compromise and people came together, not in spite of, but because of this crisis and put their partisan politics behind them.”

Sinema: “I’m doing more calling and texting; COVID has not stopped our ability to get things done in a bipartisan way. The problem has been, I think, that we’re giving more attention to conflict. And so the responsibility lies with all of us to reduce giving the attention to the conflict, and switch our attention to the resolution. And that would provide more incentive for both members of Congress to be more bipartisan, and it would provide an incentive for the media to cover those kinds of stories.”

Is bipartisanship is possible on some of the important issues involving religion in the United States today?

Sinema: “Remember that there’s so much more that binds us together as Americans than the things in which we are different. The core of who we are as Americans is something that we all share. And unfortunately, politicians who are using religion as a tool to divide people is a real disservice to the greatness and the genius of our system of government. You know, our Forefathers deeply believed in religious liberty. That’s why it’s enshrined in the Constitution. The concept of freedom and liberty of religion is so important to America at its founding level that when I see politicians of both political parties who use it as a tool or a weapon against others, I find that to be disrespectful to our forefathers. One of the things that bind us as Americans is the idea that the government has no right to tell you who to worship or how to worship. And when the government tries to do that, whether it does it through legislation and policy, or whether it be through political influence and partisanship is really, I think, dangerous to the fabric of our country.”

Lee:  “One of the things that binds us together as a nation is religious freedom. We are a nation of heretics. We always have been heretics. Our nation was founded by people, some of whom were breaking away from an old way of worshipping. And over time, this country welcomed people who worship differently or not at all. Religious belief, like sexual orientation, like skin color, like so many other categories that we’ve learned can be the focus of persecution, are things that form a critical part of who we are, and are often the focus of discrimination on the basis of what someone does so much as who they are. That’s why it’s so important for us to defend and protect them, because we’re all heretics.”

What is the role that religion, religious groups, religious people might have, specifically with respect to the racial divide that we see in our country today? 

Lee: “Nearly all belief systems deal in some way or another with the morality and ethics of how you treat other people, and how you treat and interact with other people who might be oppressed, marginalized in society, over whom you might have some degree of power, dominion or control. And so that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important and profound that our religious freedom is protected in our First Amendment, and it’s among the very first things overtly protected by the Constitution is that it’s there to protect what precedes everything else, what precedes our speech, what precedes our conduct, our own individual right of conscience. If we protect that, we protect communities of believers, and communities of people who gather around a common set of ideals, regardless of their belief systems, I think that’s the best way to promote a culture of tolerance and mutual respect in which these conflicts are less likely to occur.”

Sinema: “One of the things that religious communities can do to be very helpful in this effort is to share the message of this inherent dignity and worth of individuals in the black community who have historically been marginalized and left behind, and to make sure that we are not tolerating individuals who seek to continue the system of unfairness or inequity like those white supremacists in our community who think that individuals should be treated differently and should not have access to the same benefits and protections under the law because of their birth. Religious communities can play a large role in speaking out and saying that that is not following the path of the God for whom they worship. And that creates this collective sense in our community of how we all treat each other regardless of your personal religion or faith. There is a standard in which we treat other individuals and other races, and it has to be a position of dignity and worth.”

Are questions of identity destined to divide us, or are there ways of thinking about identity that might create an avenue for unity?

Sinema: “People ask me sometimes how I managed to get elected in Arizona. I am the first Democrat to have won a senate seat in Arizona in 30 years. And it was not because of my party affiliation. It wasn’t because of any of the labels of any of my identities. It was because people believe that I am genuine and authentic and that I listen to them and care about them. I get up each day wanting to make their lives better. And I don’t know where that fits into identity. There’s no label for that it’s just a quality of who you are as a person. If we as Americans choose to focus on those qualities of our character, we can overcome this prejudice and discrimination that has resulted from seeing only the identity that is outside and then building these divisions because of that. Instead, we seek to love each other as humans and as people flawed but beautiful, and then seek to repair what has been done wrong in the past. That is what builds trust and builds unity.”

Lee: “There is always more that unites us than divides us. Part of what makes us unique is each humans’ unique, irreplaceable, unrepeatable combination of traits and qualities and then upbringing. But when you look at it, our similarities as humans, the emotions that we feel, the pain that we experience, disappointment and heartbreak that inevitably comes into each of our lives, is something that allows each of us to understand others in a way that far transcends skin color, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or any other category that we can think of.”

If President Trump were to call you this afternoon and ask, “What should we be doing in the crises that face us?” what would you say?

Lee: “We do need to move toward a kinder, gentler system of government, and in order to do that, we need to not put so many eggs in one basket. So almost every time I talk to President Trump, I try to connect it back to that. Not everything in society has to be government. Not everything government has to be federal, and not everything that is the federal government has to be through the executive branch.”

Sinema: “This is a time when our country needs compassion and empathy. A leader who, with the three crises we are facing—the health crisis, economic crisis, or the racial justice crisis—your opinion on the issue is less important than how you approach it with your people. I have found that in Arizona, whether or not someone agrees with me is much less important than how I interact with them. Do I show empathy and compassion? Do I seek to find understanding, even if we disagree on the outcome? Approach all of these crises and approach the nation from a place of compassion, empathy, and humility. It is okay to not know the answer of what comes next. Nobody knows. What’s important is that we go on a journey together to discover it, and people will trust you and go with you if they believe that you were genuine and empathetic and compassionate.”

Closing Session, Friday, 19 June 2020 –  “COVID-19: Present and Future Implications for Religious Groups”

The “Economics of Goodness”—a sure way to produce the best outcomes—was the topic of Michael Leavitt’s presentation. Leavitt is former Governor of Utah, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, and is now the founder of Leavitt Partners, a group advising health care professionals. He spoke of goodness as a universal asset that has value in any community. It is the power to do the right thing voluntarily. How does this relate to the COVID-19 crisis?

Leavitt’s first experience with a potential pandemic was with the bird virus that had begun infecting people more than a decade ago. Realizing that neither the US or the rest of the world was prepared for a pandemic, he began researching them, how they unfold and affect the world. 1918 was the last global pandemic, and we currently have implemented strategies from what we learned from then. We can communicate almost instantly throughout the world, and have shared what is best to do in a health crisis like this—social distancing. In fact, social distancing is the only “medical” intervention that we have, and millions of lives have been saved through its practices. But there have been grave side effects—jobs lost, economies plunging downward, a psychological toll brought about by isolation, food supply chains fraying, among many others. We are trying to rebalance into a new normal by learning what we can and can’t do safely. We now rely less on government regulations than on trusting individual behaviors like washing hands, wearing masks, limiting interactions, and standing apart. Individuals can produce good outcomes, but the question remains, will we? That brings us around to living the economics of goodness.

Is religious freedom important in the time of COVID-19? Governments are designed to compel group behaviors through edict. Faith communities rely on changing behavior by changing hearts. The pandemic has revealed problems with economic inequities and race. Is there a flaw in our character? Reshaping character is about changing behaviors. Faith communities are needed now more than ever.


The pandemic has brought loss—loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of gathering, loss of friend and family relationships. How do we let deprivation and loss change us? Can something come from loss other than pain and deprivation?

Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies addressed these questions. Religious leaders from many different faith communities have called for fasting and prayers—a counter-intuitive action where participants forego necessities like food and drink in order to get something better like peace, revelation, and confidence. Those qualities are gifts to the participants so they can go forward with confidence and inspiration to serve the world.

We can draw on resources from the reservoirs of faith communities: their traditions of hope, their reaching upward and then outward, feeding souls and then calling for action to move forward by seeking to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Brett Scharffs, Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, used a metaphor of how the pandemic was like an engineering stress test used for testing the resilience of bridges by increasing pressure on them. How are we managing this COVID-19 stress test?
Scharffs reminded us of legal tools that can be used to respond to this health crisis such as the rule of law and non-discrimination laws, reasonable accommodation laws, and compelling state interests to help us withstand the stresses we are facing. However, the non-legal strategies to apply to the crisis are to exercise patience, forbearance, and restraint; to be a light in the time of darkness either seeking it or simply having faith it is there, and living the truth that human dignity is for everyone everywhere. Living lives with these things in mind are the only real hope we have for giving our children a better world than what we have now.