Guest Columnist Promoting and defending religious liberty

Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame. Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame./ Matthew Rice CC 4.0

When the pandemic put us all, globally, in the hands of the government, many of us learned not to take our freedoms for granted. 


Recognizing that religious freedom is necessary for any thriving human society, Notre Dame kicked off a new initiative to promote and defend it at home and abroad. This initiative – the signature project of Notre Dame Law School’s new dean, Marcus Cole – is both innovative and comprehensive.  


And, sad to say, so desperately needed in today’s world.  


Dean Cole has explained that the genesis of his vision for the clinic goes back to an experience he had at Stanford Law School, where he taught for 20 years. He had learned about a group of cloistered religious sisters whose land was going to be taken by the state because it was deemed too valuable to simply be “a place of prayer.” Cole was moved to help the sisters, but felt helpless to do so, since his training was in the field of business law. Years later, he thought of those sisters as he became dean of the Notre Dame Law School. He resolved to use the university’s massive intellectual and material resources, along with its unparalleled convening power, to create an unprecedented initiative to protect religious liberty through education, legal services, and public witness. The Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative is the fruit of Cole’s vision. 


Professor Stephanie Barclay who directs the new project explained, “The religious liberty initiative is focused on promoting and developing religious liberty scholarship and leveraging those ideas to make a difference in the lives of real people.”  


A suffering world – a world where people of different faiths are persecuted in ways large and small – awaits. Indeed, threats to the free practice of religion anywhere, are threats to the free practice of religion everywhere. 


Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative excels not only in its reach but in a distinctively multi-faceted programming that goes beyond legal education and services. At its core is a diverse community of scholars, experts, advocates, and faith leaders. Additionally, the initiative features a Religious Liberty Clinic that educates and trains future lawyers.  


At its inaugural Religious Liberty Summit, Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative brought together scholars and thought leaders on religious freedom from a multitude of faith traditions. This two-day, in-person event featured several expert panel discussions including an interfaith dialogue panel with a keynote address from His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. 


At the summit, the inaugural Notre Dame Prize for Religious Liberty to United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was presented to Commissioner Nury Turkel, a leading human rights advocate focused on the oppression of Uyghurs in China. 

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In his acceptance speech, Commissioner Turkel described the 5-year genocide of the Uyghurs – the prison camps, the forced abortions and sterilizations that are pushing the Uyghur population’s birthrate into rapid decline. He warned of the growing use of cyber surveillance in racial profiling and the consequences for anyone concerned with religious freedom worldwide. He thanked Notre Dame for the award but mainly for drawing attention to the suffering of the Uyghur people: “No law school in the country has done anything this significant, publicly.”  


Notre Dame’s efforts are part of a welcome growing trend of bipartisan gatherings popping up post-COVID. The International Religious Freedom Summit, co-chaired by Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, with Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights just wrapped in Washington, DC.  



There may be a lot of darkness – a lot of attacks on religious liberty in the United States and across the globe – these days. But efforts like the ones in South Bend and Washington, DC shine a ray of hope.

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