A Seventh-day Adventist scholar has cautioned attendees of a major international conference in Italy that religious freedom cannot exist in countries where the government has a special relationship with a single religious group.
For many people today, this issue holds more than just academic interest. More than two dozen countries of the world — including Costa Rica, Argentina, Greece and Bulgaria — acknowledge either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy as either the official state religion or a state-supported religion. More than 10 other countries name a Protestant denomination —such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Methodism — as the national religion.
Many presentations at the three-day conference at the Fondazione Studium Generale Marcianum, a cultural institution founded by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, focused on how a special church-state relationship affects the majority religion either positively or negatively. But the presentation by Juan Martin Vives, a professor at the Adventist University of Plata in Argentina, explored the serious consequences that a preferential church-state relationship has for minority religious groups.
“In a time where the ideal of equality is a fundamental value in society, there should never be differences in treatment based on religion,” Vives said. “There can be no freedom without equality.”
He drew on the experiences of minority faiths in Latin American countries to show that while religious minorities may not experience outright persecution, neither do they have complete religious freedom.
He also spoke against the idea of so-called “cooperation systems,” which some have proposed as an alternate to traditional church-state relationships. These, he said, would simply mask the privileges — legal or financial — that are enjoyed by majority religious groups.
True religious freedom cannot exist where the law provides different treatment for different religious groups, Vives said.
Vives, one of only two representatives from Latin America at the Venice conference last week, serves as secretary of academic services at the Adventist University of Plata and chairs its Center for Law and Religion Studies.
Vives, along with other specialists in law and religion from Adventist universities in Latin America, have recently formed a religious freedom research organization headed by Helio Carnassale, director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Adventist Church’s South American Division. The group aims to strengthen and extend through academic research the Adventist Church’s historic work in protecting religious freedom as a fundamental human right.