Next week the 7th World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) will be taking place in the Dominican Republic.  The IRLA has been in operation since 1893, making it one of the oldest associations that is dedicated to freedom of conscience.

The theme of the conference is "Secularism and Religious Freedom-Conflict or Partnership?" which will differentiate between secularism in terms of separation of church and state under which faith can freely thrive  and hostile radical secularism which seeks to marginalize religion. Other topics up for discussion will include the impact of the recent government changes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Since 2003, the United Nations has recognized the IRLA as a Category II Non-Governmental Organization and its thirteen regions cover the globe. Although this organization, comprised of a volunteer staff, was started by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is non-sectarian and many other religious traditions who value liberty of conscience are involved in its operation.

In February 24, 1893, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan adopted a Resolution and Remonstrance objecting to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had essentially declared the United States a "Christian nation" when deciding that the World's Fair should close on Sundays. The argument the Court made in supporting its decision, more than the issue of Sunday itself, was the subject of the objection.

The Supreme Court had stated that, "There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning. They affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons. They are organic utterances. They speak the voice of the entire people. While because of a general recognition of this truth the question has seldom been presented to the courts, yet we find that in Updegraph v. Com., 11 Serg. & R. 394, 400, it was decided that, Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania."- Supreme Court Decision, 1892 Church of the Holy Trinity Decision v United States.

In response, the Adventist Church objected to the assertion that the government could define religion, and stated that "religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, and is nowhere cognizable but at the tribunal of the universal Judge."

Describing the decision, the resolution drafted by A.T. Jones stated, "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens and the noblest characteristic of the American Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and avoided the consequences by denying the principles."

In arguments that are remarkably pertinent to the issues we face in 2012, the resolution states, "We, therefore, as Christians, as Protestants, as American citizens, and as men, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the natural rights of mankind, of the Constitution of the United States, of history of more than eighteen hundred years, and of the Lord Jesus Christ, solemnly publish and declare that we are and of right ought to be, free and independent of all connection, direction, dictation, interference, or control, of the government of the United States, in matters of religion or religious observances or religious institutions of any kind or degree; and that, as such, so far as earthly authority is concerned, we have full right to be religious or not religious, to worship or not to worship, to observe a day or not to observe it, according to the dictates of our own consciences and the convictions of our own minds."

The full document as well as additional materials including the Supreme Court decision in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892) is available at the Adventist Archives.

The IRLA has adopted the following set of principles:

  • We believe that religious liberty is a God-given right.
  • We believe that legislation and other governmental acts which unite church and state are contrary to the best interests of both institutions and are potentially prejudicial to human rights, and hold that it is best exercised where separation is maintained between church and state.
  • We believe that government is divinely ordained to support and protect citizens in their employment of natural rights, and to rule in civil affairs; and that in so doing, government warrants respectful obedience and willing support.
  • We believe in the natural and inalienable right of freedom of conscience – to have or not to have a religion; to adopt the religion or belief of one's choice; to change religious belief according to conscience; to manifest one's religion individually or in community with others, in worship, observance, practice, promulgation and teaching – subject only to respect for the equivalent rights of others.
  • We believe that religious liberty includes also the freedom to establish and operate appropriate charitable or educational institutions, to solicit or receive voluntary financial contributions, to observe days of rest and celebrate holidays in accordance with the precepts of one's religion, and to maintain communication with fellow believers at national and international levels.
  • We believe that religious liberty and the elimination of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief are essential to promote understanding, peace and friendship among people.
  • We believe that citizens should use lawful and honorable means to prevent the reduction of religious liberty, so that all may enjoy its inestimable blessing.
  • We believe that the spirit of true religious liberty is epitomized in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Today, the International Religious Liberty Association continues forward with a global focus on freedom. While many religious organizations address religious freedom from the perspective of one nation or another, the IRLA recognizes that what one nation does may affect the liberty of people in other nations, and so efforts are designed to coordinate between people of faith in various countries.

Much of this international focus is probably due to the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist Hospital operates, under a single umbrella, churches, hospitals, schools, and colleges and a variety of other institutions around the world. If freedom is curtailed in one place, the impact is acutely felt elsewhere.

News and video updates of the IRLA Conference are going to be made available at http://www.irla.org.

 

 

 

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