J. Reuben Clark Law Society

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett Honored at Seventh Annual International Religious Liberty Dinner


L-R: D: Gordon Smith, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett,
Virginia Isaacson
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett was honored in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, October 6th at the seventh annual International Religious Liberty Dinner. The annual award and dinner are co-sponsored by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) and the District of Columbia Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society. This year’s event was held at the Hotel Monaco in downtown D.C.

In her acceptance speech, Swett told audience members that protecting a robust right of religious freedom is “not just the right thing to do, but almost always the smart thing to do. I think the American experience bears this out.”

Lantos Swett is the president of the Lantos Foundation, an organization created to honor the legacy of her parents. Both her mother and father were Holocaust survivors who spent much of their careers engaged in fighting for human rights and combatting anti-Semitism. Her father, Tom Lantos, was the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. Congress. Today the foundation advocates for basic human rights, including religious freedom, of people across the globe.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
Lantos Swett posed the following as the question of our day: “How will we protect religious freedom in a world where it is facing so many threats?” Among the largest such threats currently facing the world, she said, are the “fanatical butchers of ISIS” whose brutality to Christians and Muslims alike threatens religious freedom in places where the regime has taken control. But Lantos Swett also spoke of the threats to religious liberty in more democratic societies, and stated that resolving the tension in our own country between religious liberty and other basic rights would take “humility” and “good will and respect on both sides.”


“Failure,” she said, “is not an option.” Religious liberty must be a priority for all nations, Lantos Swett said, because “history has not been kind to those who destroy the religious liberties of others,” and benefits await societies who champion a citizen’s right to worship freely. “There is a strong correlation between a robust protection of religious freedom and stability, prosperity, democracy, and interestingly, higher socioeconomic status for women,” she said.


Dr. David Holland
In addition to award presentations to Dr. Lantos Swett and the winners of the student writing competition held in connection with the event, the program also included keynote remarks by Dr. David Holland, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Holland focused his remarks on a 1906 lawsuit brought against Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. He said the opinion in that case could impart several lessons that might help courts wrestling with issues of religious freedom today. Judicial opinions related to religious liberty in recent years, he said, show a tendency of judges to shy away from engaging with the definition of religious belief. “The definitional project has seemed to run out of steam in the highest levels of the U.S. judiciaries,” he said, adding this is a dangerous development in the law because “the definitional problem threatens to pit the establishment and free exercise clauses against each other.” The 1906 Eddy suit shows a way courts can avoid that problem by engaging with the definitional problem and expanding the definition of religious belief pragmatically. “We have a solemn obligation to keep our eyes open and our oars in the water,” he said.


U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black

U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black also participated in the evening’s program, offering the invocation, and music was provided by vocalist Heather Craw. The nascent National Museum of American Religion also offered items from its collection for display.


Among the attendees were scholars and professionals who had recently taken part in the Law and Religion Symposium sponsored by the ICRLS. Dr. Wissam Raji, a professor in number theory at the American University of Beirut, said he especially enjoyed Holland’s remarks. “The research Dr. Holland spoke about goes deep into the connection between human rights and religion,” he said. “You can alleviate issues by trying to find that connection to the benefit of all believers.”

Professor Brett Scharffs, director of the ICLRS, said the Center is “deeply grateful” for its partnership with the JRCLS Mid-Atlantic Chapter. “The J. Reuben Clark Society Chapter in Washington, D.C. continues to thrive and grow,” he said. “Being there is a real treat, an opportunity to rub shoulders with lawyers and former students who are making meaningful professional contributions in a wide variety of ways.” Scharffs said the highlight of the evening was the opportunity to honor and hear from Dr. Lantos Swett. “Katrina Lantos Swett is an absolute treasure,” he said. “Her commitment to human rights in general and freedom of religion and belief in particular is rooted not only in personal family history, but in a long record of empathetic engagement with all people who are persecuted due to their religion or beliefs.”

By Brooke Nelson Edwards, Member of District of Columbia Mid-Atlantic Chapter

Posted: November 17, 2016