President Oaks and other leaders have addressed the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit. What is it and why does it matter?

ROME, Italy — Religious freedom is a necessary precondition for anyone to choose a faith, said G. Marcus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School and founder of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative.

 “The world is also learning that it is an essential precondition for political freedom, economic prosperity and human flourishing,” he said.

Welcoming guests to the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, Cole addressed the summit’s theme, “Dignitatis Humanae” — taken from the statement of the same name promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965, at the end of Vatican Council II.

This document sets out the Catholic Church’s support for religious freedom. “The protection and defense of religious freedom is central to the Catholic faith today,” he said.

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, offered a keynote address of the summit — calling for “a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Catholic archbishop of New York, and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles participated in the inaugural Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in 2021, held on the University of Notre Dame’s campus in Indiana. This year’s summit in Rome underscored the Religious Liberty Initiative’s global reach.

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During his remarks in Rome, Cole said founders of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative conceived of it as a comprehensive approach to preserve, protect, restore and defend religious freedom in the United States and around the world. “While we come from many different faith traditions, and some from none at all, we are all here today because we share the fundamental belief that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are essential to human flourishing. Indeed, they are fundamental human rights.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks with Stephanie Barclay, director of the Religious Liberty Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Since the time of the initiative's founding three years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how vulnerable freedom of religion actually is — and how little it is valued by those in power, said Cole. “We saw that when fear and panic strikes the general population, people of faith are often the first to suffer the repressive restrictions of government. What is worse, people of faith are often scapegoated for the outbreaks.”

But “the fog of the pandemic” is lifting, he said, noting that in recent months in the United States, momentous court decisions at every level struck down discriminatory restrictions on people of faith and religious practices.

“We have seen the Supreme Court of the United States come down decisively in favor of neutrality when religious groups wanted to participate with secular groups in displays on public property. We have also seen the court side with a public school employee who merely wanted to exercise his right to pray after a public event. And we have heard the decision of the court in favor of families of faith who were denied public educational benefits simply because they wanted their children to be educated at faith-based schools.”

Still, he said, there is much more work to be done.

“There is a reason why cases involving religious freedom have come to prominence in the Supreme Court’s docket. It is because assaults on religious freedom have become so common in American life.”

Those defending religious liberty also cannot lose sight of what is happening in the rest of the world. “Darkness is reaching out in an attempt to envelop the earth, and crush religious freedom in places where it is most needed.”

For example, he said, a movement called the Abidjan Principles “has the purported purpose of forcing religious schools in developing communities to conform to public educational standards. The practical effect, however, is to eliminate religion in schools, including religious educators.”

In addition, he said, “there are still 13 countries in the world where being an atheist is a crime punishable by death. That penalty – death – also still awaits those convicted of blasphemy laws. Persecution of Catholics and Christians around the world persists. Churches are burned, and believers are beheaded.”

Tourists walk through the Vatican museum in Rome on Thursday, July 21, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Cole noted that the purpose of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit is threefold.

  • First, to connect those who are engaged in the fight for religious freedom, to share work, encouragement and support.
  • Second, to leverage the global footprint of the University of Notre Dame, to highlight the global nature of this fight for religious freedom.
  • Third, to formulate and coordinate strategy to construct an efficient and effective bulwark against those who threaten religious freedom.

Referencing Rome — the host city of the Religious Liberty Summit — Cole spoke of the ruins of the Roman empire that still stand in the city.

“The once great Roman empire was brought down — conquered — by an idea,” he said. “That idea was a faith.”

Cole said, just as some laugh today at efforts to preserve, protect, restore and defend religious liberty, the Romans once laughed at a faith.

“So, the enemies of religious freedom can laugh at us now, but we will not go away,” he said. “We will continue to fight for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion until it is enjoyed by all.”

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