Whether secularism threatens religious freedom will become an increasingly significant question for religious groups -- especially religious minorities -- in the coming years, legal experts and academics predicted last week.
"There's a widespread fear that secular values are undermining the role of religion in society," said Dwayne Leslie, deputy secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association, which sponsored a three-day think tank in Sydney, Australia. "But the truth is much more nuanced than that."
Leslie pointed out that, globally, religious freedom is strongest in countries where governments are grounded on secular principles, and where religion is excluded from the political sphere. "Just take a look at the news headlines and compare the level of peace, security and freedom enjoyed in 'secular' societies versus that seen in 'theocratic'-style countries," he said, "and it's easy to see that secularism can actually be a friend to religious freedom."
But Leslie acknowledged that there is a point where secular values can begin to express themselves as hostility toward religion, and especially toward religious minorities. "This is a developing trend that needs close and continuing study," he said. He pointed to recent French legislation outlawing the public wearing of the burqa for Islamic women as an example of a state appealing to the idea of "secularism" to actually limit religious expression.
The 13th IRLA Meeting of Experts, hosted at the University of Sydney, School of Law, drew 27 religious liberty advocates and academics from 12 countries. According to John Graz, secretary general of the IRLA, these annual forums bring together some of the world's foremost scholars and practitioners in the field of religious freedom to track legal and sociological trends.
"Over the years, IRLA meetings of experts have built up a significant body of academic and practical resources," Graz said.
Greg Smith, attorney-general of New South Wales, addressed the delegates along with university students and members of the public. In what University of Sydney professor Patrick Parkinson described as a "substantial" speech, the attorney-general outlined the history of the Australian Constitution, in particular its provisions for religious freedom. He also discussed test cases in various states of Australia.
"I wouldn't say that right now in Australia the secular perspective is privileged," said Ken Vogel, IRLA secretary general for the South Pacific region, "but the secular perspective is being very loudly voiced and there is a chance that that voice could actually gain so much ground that the religious voice is not only not heard but actually rejected."
The gathering was bittersweet for some who had been friends and associates of Karel Nowak, IRLA secretary general for the Euro-Africa region. Nowak was in Australia, intending to participate in the meetings, when he died August 19 while snorkeling near Cairns, Queensland.
Established in 1893, the IRLA is the world's oldest religious freedom advocacy organization. It has 13 regional chapters worldwide and national associations in more than 80 countries. Along with the annual Meeting of Experts, the IRLA sponsors regional religious freedom festivals and forums, and every five years organizes a world congress, which attracts an international mix of scholars, legal practitioners, government officials and human rights advocates.
Next year's 7th IRLA World Congress is scheduled for April 24 to 26 in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
--additional reporting by Kent Kingston