May 1, 2015

U.S. Senator Says Adventists Lead in Protecting Religious Freedom

, news editor, Adventist Review

A senior U.S. senator said religious freedom was under threat in the United States and around the world and praised the Seventh-day Adventist Church for playing a major role in defending it.

Senator Orrin Hatch, speaking at an annual religious liberty dinner sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, criticized the situation with religious freedom in countries such as China, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

He said people in the United States also have cause for concern, pointing to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past 50 years.

“This is a time of turmoil for religion and religious freedom, both here in America and abroad,” Hatch said in a keynote speech on Wednesday evening to about 160 ambassadors, religious leaders, and religious freedom advocates in a hotel in downtown Washington.

But, he said, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has helped protect religious freedom by working with U.S. legislators and mounting challenges in court.

As an example, he said that both the Adventist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, of which he is a member, played key roles in the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected” and was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Hatch applauded a statement that the Adventist Church issued in support of the U.S. state of Arizona in 1999 when the local government enacted its own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to Supreme Court restrictions on the federal law.

“Once again, the Seventh-day Adventist Church led the way,” said Hatch, 81, who has served as senator since 1977 and is the most senior Republican in the Senate, third in line in succession to the presidency.

Read the transcript of Senator Orrin Hatch’s speech (PDF)

Religious freedom has been a priority of the Adventist Church since its origins in the mid-1800s, and the church has long defended the rights of Sabbath-keepers and other religious minorities. Those efforts have been particularly visible in the past few decades as the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, has built up its religious liberty department, which co-hosted the dinner together with Adventist Church’s Liberty Magazine, International Religious Liberty Association, and North American Religious Liberty Association.

John Graz, left, director of the Adventist Church’s religious liberty department, posing with the dinner's national award recipient, Tiffany Barrens, international legal director of the American Center for Law and Justice; and its international award recipient, Mihnea Coutoiu, a Romanian senator and university president. (Mylon Medley / ANN)

Premier Religious Liberty Event

Dwayne Leslie, the Adventist Church’s liaison with U.S. Congress and the White House, said he was grateful that Hatch had recognized the longstanding commitment of the church to protecting religious freedom.

“Over the years our church has often been on the front lines in many of these legislative initiatives on Capitol Hill,” he told the Adventist Review. “I'm honored to be able to continue this proud tradition.”

The dinner, which has become a premier religious liberty event in Washington over the past 13 years, aims to uphold the urgency of religious freedom among the diplomatic community. This year it brought together the likes of U.S. Congressman Chris Stewart, a first-time attendee and Republican from Utah, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ambassador La Celia Prince, a frequent guest and one of only two Adventist ambassadors currently serving in Washington. The other Adventist ambassador is Palan Mulonda from Zambia, who has attended in previous years.

“The ultimate goal is to transform them into champions of religious liberty,” said Ganoune Diop, associate director of the Adventist Church’s religious liberty department and the church’s liaison to the United Nations.

Other guests included Jewish leaders, representatives of Muslim nongovernmental organizations, and Adventist delegations from the Dominican Republic, Romania, and other countries.

The attendees dined on roasted vegetable Wellington in a mild curry sauce and blackberry cheesecake as Hatch spoke at the Willard InterContinental Hotel.

After Hatch finished, he was presented with a special award for his commitment to religious liberty. Organizers presented the dinner’s national award to Tiffany Barrens, international legal director of the American Center for Law and Justice, and its international award to Mihnea Coutoiu, a senator and university president from Romania.

Todd R. McFarland, associate general counsel for the General Conference, paid tribute to Charles Kester, a lawyer and friend of the Adventist Church on religious liberty cases who died recently.

John Graz, who will retire this year as director of the Adventist Church’s religious liberty department and secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, was recognized for his decades of leadership.

Eternal Vigilance and Whitley Phipps

Hatch, in his speech, said studies have shown that religious freedom is associated with higher happiness, while countries without it tend to be more violent.

“It … is an inalienable right that does not come from government but from God Himself,” he said. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and no liberty is more worth the price.”

Hatch opened his remarks by speaking about his friendship with Wintley Phipps, an ordained Adventist minister and Grammy-nominated singer who has performed for the past six U.S. presidents. Hatch is a songwriter and singer, and he said he and Phipps have enjoyed singing together.

On the sidelines of the dinner, Hatch thanked Graz for the Adventist Church’s consistent work year after year to protect the “mother of all freedoms.”

“He encouraged us to keep promoting and defending this value that is so essential for democratic society,” Graz said.

Graz, who has traveled to more than 100 countries and organized meetings of tens of thousands of people to celebrate religious freedom, said he hoped to see the Adventist Church’s efforts flourish and grow.

“I am still dreaming that one day we will see 100,000 people celebrating religious freedom on the Mall in Washington,” he said. “What a strong message that would send to the world and to America.”