IRLA Experts Gather in Australia to Address the Challenge of Secularism

Meeting generates material for next year's World Congress in Dominican Republic

Experts from twelve countries met at Sydney University for the 13th annual IRLA Meeting of Experts.

[Bettina Krause/Kent Kingston/IRLA] Twenty-seven academics and legal experts from 12 countries met at the University of Sydney this week to explore freedom of religion and the rise of secularism during a three-day international think tank. The event—organised by the Adventist-sponsored International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) in partnership with the Sydney University Law School—was the 13th IRLA Meeting of Experts, and the first to be held in the South Pacific. Previous venues have included Amman, Jordan; Madrid, Spain; and Washington DC, United States.

On the final day of the gathering, Greg Smith, Attorney-General of New South Wales, addressed the delegates along with university students and members of the public. In what University of Sydney professor, Patrick Parkinson, described as a “substantial” speech, the Attorney-General outlined the history of the Australian Constitution, in particular its provisions for religious freedom. He also discussed test cases in various states of Australia.

The Meeting of Experts focused particularly on the global growth of secularism and how it may erode religious freedom – the “first freedom,” which many see as a cornerstone of the human rights discourse.

“I wouldn’t say that right now in Australia the secular perspective is privileged,” said Ken Vogel, IRLA secretary general for the South Pacific region, “but the secular perspective is being very loudly voiced and there is a chance that that voice could actually gain so much ground that the religious voice is not only not heard but actually rejected.”

According to Dr John Graz, secretary general of the IRLA, these annual forums bring together some of the world’s foremost scholars and practitioners in the field of religious freedom to track legal and sociological trends. “Over the years, IRLA Meetings of Experts have built up a significant body of academic and practical resources,” he says. “This year, we’re delighted to partner with Sydney University Law School. It was a stimulating and productive few days.”

Presenters included Rosa Maria Martinez de Codes, former Spanish Justice Department official and currently Associate Professor, Universidad Complutense de Madrid; Patrick Parkinson, Professor, Sydney University Law School; David Little, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Divinity School; Paul Taylor, barrister-at-law and author; Nicholas Miller, director of the US-based International Religious Liberty Institute; and Blandine Chelini-Pont, Professor of History, Law and Religion, Université Paul Cézanne.

The gathering was tinged with sadness for some who had been friends and associates of Karel Nowak, IRLA secretary general for the Euro-Africa region.  Nowak was in Australia, intending to participate in the meetings, when he died August 19 while snorkelling near Cairns, Queensland.

Established in 1893, the IRLA has its headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, and is the world’s oldest religious freedom advocacy organisation. It has 13 regional chapters worldwide and national associations in more than 80 countries. Along with the annual Meeting of Experts, the IRLA sponsors regional religious freedom festivals and forums, and every five years organises a world congress, which attracts an international mix of scholars, legal practitioners, government officials and human rights advocates.

Dr. Graz says the Sydney Meeting of Experts was especially important as the material it generated will provide a springboard for next year’s 7th IRLA World Congress, to be held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, April 24-26.