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Love of law fuels fight for freedom

Cole Durham plays vital role in spreading religious liberty

There's more than meets the eye with Cole Durham, a law professor at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School.

In Moscow's Red Square, Cole Durham stands in front of St. Basil's Cathedral. The fall of the Soviet Union opened many doors for his work.    In Moscow's Red Square, Cole Durham stands in front of St. Basil's Cathedral. The fall of the Soviet Union opened many doors for his work.
In Moscow's Red Square, Cole Durham stands in front of St. Basil's Cathedral. The fall of the Soviet Union opened many doors for his work. In Moscow's Red Square, Cole Durham stands in front of St. Basil's Cathedral. The fall of the Soviet Union opened many doors for his work. Photo: Photo courtesy of Cole Durham

At first glance, Brother Durham appears to be a walking, talking incarnation of an "absent-minded professor" stereotype. Stacks of books litter his office — covering his desk, pushed against walls, on tops of chairs — making the room look like a scene from a librarian's nightmare. The business card he pulls from his pocket and presents to a visitor is bent and crinkled. Brother Durham wears suspenders, a polka dot tie, and thick round glasses snugly clasped to his head.

The man's impeccable resume does nothing to dispel the notion that he is an aloof academic. It includes Harvard undergrad, Harvard law school, an editorship on the Harvard Law Review and a prestigious clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals. He currently serves as the director of BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

But appearances aside, you'll find that behind the diplomas, titles and honors, Brother Durham is neither absent-minded nor aloof. To the contrary, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, he is a modern-day warrior fighting on the front lines for the rights of religious freedom claimants around the world. Simply put, he believes that religious freedom is a right everyone deserves.

"I think that at Cole's core is a basic love of people and also a love of law and of freedom," said Louise Durham, his wife. "Those combine to make him exactly what he needs to be to do the work he does in other countries. He loves the people in all of these lands, and is so moved by their goodness and their courage and their willingness to sacrifice ultimately everything for religious freedom."

Second from left, Cole Durham speaks during a panel discussion at a 2007 religious liberty conference in Macedonia, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
Second from left, Cole Durham speaks during a panel discussion at a 2007 religious liberty conference in Macedonia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. Photo: Photo courtesy of Cole Durham

Earlier this year, Brother Durham received the First Freedom Center's 2009 International First Freedom Award for his work in the field of international religious freedom (see Church News, Jan. 24, 2009). On March 4 he was feted for his award with a recognition dinner held in his honor in Salt Lake City. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Wayne C. Hancock, an emeritus Seventy, attended the event. In delivering the keynote address, Associate General Counsel for the Church William F. Atkin praised Brother Durham's decades-long commitment to helping religious freedom find the light of day in places it never had before.

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brother Durham's services have been in demand because, as an expert in international religious liberty, newly democratic governments seek out his help in shaping the religious aspects of constitutions and legislative processes. To advance the dialogue about international religious liberty, the International Center for Law and Religion Studies hosts an annual conference at BYU as well as co-sponsoring 20-30 smaller conferences abroad each year. As a result, he vigorously travels internationally in the furtherance of religious freedom.

"Reading and working on international liberty things is pretty much full-time," he said. "In 2007, we actually counted it up, and I was out of the country 185 days. This is a lot of time. We're involved in a very intense, ongoing process. We're highly engaged with nongovernmental organizations, legal experts, government experts and government officials around the world — working on legislation, working on issues, and so on."

As communism fell in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Bloc dictatorships disintegrated, Brother Durham did extensive work with the former Soviet states. He said that experience gave him familiarity with "different models of how religious freedom laws are structured." With that as a backdrop, Brother Durham was called upon in 2005 to go to Baghdad and help write the new Iraqi constitution. During his sojourn in Iraq Brother Durham also learned some sobering lessons about how much some people had to sacrifice in order to further the cause of freedom.

"These people we worked with were prominent Iraqis," he said. "They were known. Over the course of the process, we became aware of a number of them who were assassinated. Realizing that we were dealing with values that people were putting their lives at risk for had a transformative effect on my life.

Cole Durham, center, at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Brother Durham teaches one class every year at the university in Budapest.
Cole Durham, center, at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Brother Durham teaches one class every year at the university in Budapest. Photo: Photo courtesy of Cole Durham

"What really hit me watching these people, as controversial as the end product was in some ways, was that these were people of extraordinary courage. Realizing how significant that was put things in a much deeper context for me."

A member of the Provo Utah Edgemont Stake, Brother Durham spends the vast majority of his professional endeavors defending religious freedom claims of people who are not of his faith. Brother Durham views this as a natural extension of his own faith commitments.

"Working on behalf of religious freedom is actually very easy for a member of the Church," he said. "The commitment to religious freedom in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is central. We have the 11th Article of Faith and its recognition of the right to freedom of worship. That's been with us since the beginning. Joseph Smith often spoke about religious freedom and its importance and how he would stand up for people from any other religion in the same way he would stand up for members of his own faith.

"At an even deeper doctrinal level, this goes to the core of doctrines of free agency and the nature of man. There is a very deep commitment to religious freedom within the LDS tradition, which extends not only to protection of members of the LDS faith, but very much to the protection of the rights of others as well."

The work Brother Durham has done during his career is profound and extensive, but it has not come without a price. The Durhams have four children ages 27-35. Travel demands over the past two decades have meant that all members of the Durham family have sacrificed and have significant equity in Brother Durham's accomplishments.

"I think that it wasn't always easy for our children to understand," his wife said. "One daughter, for example, has a birthday that seemed to fall almost every year during a conference her father was attending elsewhere. And that was a really hard thing for her. 'Why isn't Daddy ever here for my birthday?'

"But we always had a sense that that's what he was supposed to be doing. While we miss him, and have always missed him, we have joined him in the sense that he's been blessed to be in the positions to do important things, to open up doors and build bridges of understanding."

Time marches on, and so does Brother Durham. He envisions a future where the International Center for Law and Religion Study has sufficient institutional presence to carry on its work uninterrupted even after his own career ends. With younger colleagues such as Bob Smith, Brett Scharffs, Elizabeth Sewell and others already on board, the infrastructure exists for the center's work to continue.

When asked why he still works so hard after all the years of travel, Brother Durham began to tell a story. He described meeting with Hare Krishnas in Kazakhstan whose homes had been unjustly destroyed by the government. At one point, they picked him up and transported him to the site of the destruction.

He explained: "There was a row of houses, many of which had been bulldozed. All of those that had been razed belonged to the Hare Krishnas."

At that point, Brother Durham's voice lowered; his eyes grew misty.

"I had a chance to meet with them again later. I told them part of the reason I cared so much about their plight was that in an earlier day, members of my church had suffered something similar. And they believed me."

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