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Freedom Classroom developing new generation of religious liberty advocates

In North America, the ministry in local congregations needs a boost

Freedom Classroom developing new generation of religious liberty advocates

Norman Farley established the Freedom Classroom initiative, which prepares high achieving students for advocacy on freedom of conscience issues. [ANN file photo]

Norman Farley wants to inspire the next generation of young Seventh-day Adventists to learn more about religious freedom issues. Doing so, he hopes, will help revive religious liberty work in local congregations.

The denomination’s Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department, which promotes advocacy for freedom of conscience, is nearly absent in many Adventist churches. That propelled Farley last year to launch Freedom Classroom, an initiative to promote religious freedom advocacy among high-achieving high school students in the Western United States.

Participating students from throughout the denomination’s Pacific Union – based in Westlake Village, California – receive supplemental classroom learning, scholarships and a trip to visit key institutions in Washington, D. C.

Farley hopes they’ll understand how to converse with legislators from all political parties and become motivated within a few years to serve as advocates in their congregation for freedom of conscience. Advocacy can include speaking on relevant issues at city hall and zoning boards, as well as helping to sponsor inter-religious events and community dialogues.

Farley, who serves as president of the North American Religious Liberty Association – West, said he modeled the program after Presidential Classroom, a program launched in the late 1960s that grooms U.S. students for leadership.

“I thought the Adventist system needed something like that,” Farley said. “Our kids need to know more about the constitution and public policy. Very little is known or discussed in either our school system or churches the issues that drive the populace.”

Now, national Adventist leaders are hoping similar programs catch on throughout the United States and in other countries. Frankly, they say, religious freedom work is lacking in many congregations, where work at the local level can make a big difference for the cause.

“Now and then they [church committees] will nominate someone with the idea that, ‘Oh you won’t have to do much, only announce the religious liberty offering once a year,’” said Gary Jensen, executive secretary of NARLA-West.

“We need qualified people doing religious freedom work and we’ve got to get the younger generation involved,” Jensen said.

Freedom of conscience has long been a platform of the Seventh-day Adventist world church. In 1893, the denomination established what is now the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), the largest non-sectarian organization solely dedicated to religious freedom.

The IRLA earlier this year awarded Farley a certificate of recognition for his work in developing Freedom Classroom.

Melissa Reid, NARLA president, called the initiative “a great way to get youth energetic about civil liberties and religious freedom issues.”

“Those are things that have traditionally been important to members of the Adventist faith,” Reid said. “This area of advocacy should be a natural fit for an age group developing their own independence.”

Students visiting Washington, D.C., last month met with legislative assistants in congressional offices, representatives from the American Center for Law and Justice, and members of the Baptist Joint Committee. Cultural visits included the U.S. Supreme Court; the Montpelier, Virginia, home of James Madison, who authored the U.S. Bill of Rights; and Colonial Williamsburg, also in Virginia, which was the center of U.S. government for much of the 18th century.

Farley, who holds a Ph.D. in ecclesiology, says visits to a variety of institutions are crucial for helping Freedom Classroom participants understand differing views. When negotiating religious freedom discussions, “They need to know how to communicate with citizens in this highly polarized society,” Farley said.

For Drew Fritzsche, 17, a recent graduate of Mesa Grande Academy in Calimesa, California, United States, the program, he said, has increased his awareness of some of the issues.

“I never really thought about it much. I didn’t know there was a battle over our religious practices and encroachments on our freedoms,” said Fritzsche, who plans to pursue a theology track in college.

Bianca Talakua, 18, a member of the Palm Springs Adventist Church, also in California, said she, too, is now more aware of the issues, and plans to tell others in her church.

“Hopefully it will spread, especially to other youth,” she said.

During their trip to Washington, the group also met with the denomination’s top religious liberty leaders, including a conference with John Graz, director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department at the Adventist Church’s world headquarters.

The department also has two associate directors: one who serves as a liaison to the United Nations and another acting as a liaison to Capitol Hill. But leaders say a network of people working throughout the denomination at the local church level can have the strongest impact.

“We want people like you to be on the front lines,” Graz told the group.

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