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The Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief Discussed at McGill University in Montreal

Professor W. Cole Durham, Susa Young Gates Professor of Law, Brigham Young University, and director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, spoke to audiences at McGill University on October 24 and 25, 2018, on the subjects of pluralism and balancing religious freedom with non-discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.

The lectures were organized to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a foundational document intended to provide a standard for the protection of fundamental human rights. Professor Durham highlighted the diversity of the drafters of the UDHR: they represented different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt was one influential framer. Her practical philosophy is captured in this quotation: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

Despite their different understandings of concepts of “dignity and conscience,” the framers worked together to draft a document that could be used as a starting point or framework for human rights around the world. Professor Durham mentioned that “all but 10 of the world’s constitutions have been adopted since 1945, and most of these have been based upon the UDHR.”

In an effort to explain the importance of his subject, the protection of freedom of religion or belief, Durham said, “Religious freedom is not just about religion; it allows us to form different worldviews and form communities in different ways.”

Professor Durham suggested that respecting human dignity is the starting point to bridge differences and will happen through genuine dialogue. He encourages all to get beyond polarized debates and engage in genuine dialogue that takes into account differing perspectives. “The foundational idea of dignity reminds us that every person, including an opponent in an argument, has great value and is worthy of respect,” Durham said.

The Utah Compromise was presented as an example of dialogue through which diverse groups were able to come together to protect LGBT housing and employment rights, while guaranteeing religious protections. Professor Durham also emphasized, “Freedom of religion is the grandparent of human rights, but it has become a neglected grandparent.” Religious freedom has been dearly won over the centuries, and it needs to be safeguarded and maintained.

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