On January 13, 2022, more than 40 people from diverse faith traditions gathered for the third Religious Freedom Prayer Breakfast hosted by the North American Division (NAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The event recognized January 16 as National Religious Freedom Day in the U.S. It included prayer for elected officials, the community, the nation, global health and healing, peace, religious freedom, and unity of spirit. Representatives of several religious groups prayed on these topics, including participants from Adventist, Jewish, Muslim, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Baptist, and non-denominational Christian faith traditions. Several NAD leaders and local church leaders participated through prayer and music.
Eric Baxter, president of the Silver Spring Stake, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and senior counsel for Becket, a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute, gave the special remarks for the event, which was scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
During the prayer breakfast welcome, Orlan Johnson, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the NAD, provided a summary of the program and shared the significance of the January date for the event.
“We’re here to celebrate an important day — National Religious Freedom Day,” Johnson said, “which commemorates the 1786 signing of the landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This statute by Thomas Jefferson included powerful language that later formed the basis for our First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — language that means you and I can each worship God in whatever way we see fit.
“No matter what religious tradition we represent, we can celebrate together and be grateful we live in this country that respects religious freedom,” he continued. “Sometimes here in [the U.S.], though, we begin to feel confident that this is just the way it is, and it’s the way the world should be. But the Pew Research Center estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where religious freedom is significantly restricted.
“The reality is that it’s a bit like looking in the rear-view mirror of your car — objects you see in the mirror can come at you faster than you think they will! And if religious freedom is being restricted in someone else’s backyard, we need to be aware that there’s a possibility it can happen in ours as well.”
During his remarks, Baxter noted that while people represent different traditions and beliefs, they can still work together on the shared goal of promoting and protecting religious freedom for all. “In today’s world, we have so many opportunities for feeling division and contention. It is good, instead, to focus on what brings us together,” he said.
Baxter related the story of one of the many religious accommodation cases he has fought. Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh is a devout Sikh and decorated Army captain who was forced to choose between serving his country and wearing the articles of his faith: his unshorn hair, beard, and turban.
“He was forced to make the difficult choice between following his religion by serving his God or following his religion by serving his country. It was essentially an impossible choice that no one should face,” Baxter explained. The case was instrumental in the Army ending its 30-year beard ban and issuing new regulations stating that Sikh soldiers will not be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards throughout their military career.
“We must stand together with those who don’t share our faith, and even with those who hold no faith at all,” Baxter said. “When we get to know one another, we can find ways to work together to protect religious freedom for all.… We still have many challenges ahead of us, including a general decline in religiosity and fairly widespread apathy towards the importance of religious liberty.”
He acknowledged complex issues that have emerged in recent years, including the need to preserve religious liberty while at the same time ensuring non-discrimination. “I believe that the well-being of our society, and the world more broadly, depends heavily on our ability as religious individuals and organizations to stand with one another as we seek in good faith and humility and compassion to address some of these challenges.”
Seven special prayers were offered during the event. Kyoshin Ahn, NAD executive secretary, gave the prayer for religious freedom. Ahn gave thanks for the gift of religious liberty — the right to love and worship God. “We know that not only is religious freedom the core element of our relationship with You, but we also recognize it is the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good,” he said in his prayer.
A prayer for the community followed, given by Mary Ka Kanahan from Saint John United Church.
Umar Nayyar, from Baitur Rehman Mosque, said during his prayer for the nation, “Our Lord, we pray for our nation, the United States, to remain loving, compassionate. Remove prejudice from our hearts and enable us to love our brothers and sisters of all faiths.”
As he prayed for elected officials, Y. S. (Lonny) Wortham, Maryland National Guard state chaplain, said, “We pray for these officials — that You would ground them and root them in love their Lord, and it would not be by their design or their will, but they would be hungry and thirsty for the things of God. Father, we pray that You would save them from their pride; we pray that You would save them from their desires of power — that they would become servants for the people of this land and nation.”
Jerome Stephens, community outreach director for U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, offered a prayer for global health and healing. He asked for God to help the health-care workers burdened during the pandemic. Stephens also said, “It is our prayer that all be encouraged. As we endure this season, it’s our faith in God that [we know] a change will come for better health and healing.”
A prayer for peace followed from Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Hawks addressed disturbing societal trends with domestic abuse, racism, and negative cultures in social media. She prayed, “Critics stand ready to replay our mistakes and failures, trapping us in that negative loop telling us we are never enough. May we find peace through rest so that we can be agents of shalom within our networks. May the day come soon when we treat everyone with the worth and dignity that comes from being made in your image.”
NAD Ministerial Association director Ivan Williams closed the event with prayer for unity of spirit.
“Oh, God, our creator of every race, language, tongue, and people. From Your provident hand, we have received our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You have called us as Your people and given us the right and the duty to worship you. Thank you for calling us to live out our faith in the midst of the world, accepting the faith of all,” Williams stated.
He continued, “Give us the strength of mind and heart to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened. And give us the courage to make our voices heard — beyond even our own rights — for the rights of others. We pray [for] a clear, compassionate, united voice for all Your sons and daughters gathered together in your creation, in this decisive hour of the history of our nation, so that with every trial withstood and every danger overcome now and with our children and grandchildren … that this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ ”