Freedom Heroes Honored

Mark A. Kellner September/October 2006
More than a capacity audience jammed the historic Senate Caucus Room, part of the U.S. Capitol complex, May 4, 2006, to honor religious freedom and give honor to those leading out in its advancement. The event was the fourth annual religious freedom dinner, sponsored by Liberty magazine, the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), and the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA)—three religious freedom outreaches sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

"America truly is not like past superpowers, countries who sought territorial gain or imperial dominion," United States Senator John McCain of Arizona, the evening's keynote speaker, told attendees at the event.

(Left to Right)James Standish,Executive Director,North American Religious Liberty Association;MAssimo Vicini,Embassy of Sweden;Caroline Vicini,Deputy Cheif of Mission,Embassy of Sweden;Jonathan Gallagher,UN Liason,SDA Church.

"It's no surprise that the many Seventh-day Adventists here tonight seek the freedom to practice their faith—after all, Adventists have often faced serious discrimination around the world," McCain said in comments that preceded his formal presentation. "What is remarkable, what is truly impressive about your work, is that you seek freedom not just for people of your faith, but also for those of all other religions. Your work on behalf of religious freedom and human rights is vital, it is transforming, and it is inspiring. And for it, the world owes you a deep debt of gratitude."

Actually, Adventist religious liberty activists were in minority of the audience that evening. Making up the capacity event were representatives of many other faiths, including Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant groups. Given the event's location, there were staff representatives from many Senate and Congressional offices, as well as media representatives. Given the international scope of the event, it was also appropriate that dozens of ambassadors and embassy staffers from a wide variety of nations were present.

(Left to Right) W.Cole Durham, Professor of Law,Brigham Young University; Senator John McCain.

"Every time a Chinese Catholic is jailed, or an Afghan convert is arrested, or a Hindu is killed in Kashmir, or a Tibetan Buddhist oppressed, it is not simply a tragedy. It is a call for action, one worthy of this country founded on the principle that every person, possessing inalienable rights, deserves to be free," Senator McCain told the international audience. (See the complete text of Senator McCain's remarks following this report.)

According to Dr. John Graz, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist world church and IRLA secretary-general, the annual dinner has taken on a measure of importance as a valuable human rights forum.
"This dinner has become a major event for religious liberty in Washington, which is the political capital of the world," Graz said. "It is an extraordinary privilege to make our message of religious liberty known among those who have responsibilities and can have an influence in the world today."

Liberty editor Lincoln Steed, in welcoming the guests to the event, reminded them of the track record of the magazine in defending religious freedom, and remaining unswerving in promoting the virtues of the separation of church and state. More than a century ago Seventh-day Adventist editor Alonzo Jones argued powerfully for it in the Sentinel , the precursor magazine to Liberty . Connecting to that heritage, a special presentation of the A. T. Jones medal was made to California flight attendant Deborah Fountain, who was suspended from her job with a major airline because of her refusal to work on Sabbath. She regained the position when the airline agreed to accommodate her needs.

(Left to Right) Senator John McCain; Jonathan Gallagher; Lincoln Steed, Editor,Liberty Magazine.

Fountain, who did not know of the award before it was announced at the event, told the audience, "I stand before you tonight as someone who simply was willing to stand on my belief in God, and He has stood by [me]. I just thank you all for this honor."

Dr. Nathaniel Higgs, a 41-year veteran of Seventh-day Adventist Church work, has spent much of that time spearheading religious liberty issues in the southern region of the United States. On the eve of his retirement, Higgs received an award of merit.

(Left to Right) Don Schneider, President, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists;Senator John McCain; Constacio Pinto, Deputy Cheif of Mission,Embassy of East Timor-Pinto.

"I have had many responsibilities," Higgs said of his career. "But perhaps the most rewarding of all has been working with religious liberty, helping individuals with challenges in the workplace and with protecting and defending individuals' freedom of conscience."

Another longtime Adventist Church worker who was honored for his religious liberty work was attorney Robert Nixon, former general counsel for the world church, as well as for many years a religious liberty leader, and a former vice president and president of the IRLA.
"The 35 years that I have done religious liberty [work] really is one of the most satisfying parts of my whole life," Nixon told the audience. "Men and women, there is a battle between good and evil. The good support religious liberty," he declared.

Two other attorneys—one a law professor—were also honored at the event. Jeffrey A. Berman is a partner in Sidley Austin, LLP in Los Angeles, where his work for more than 35 years has centered on the special needs of faith-based hospitals.

"My appreciation of the value of religion and religious organizations didn't come early to me, as it did with most of the people in this room," Berman conceded. But his experience with church-sponsored hospitals taught him that there was something different about these institutions.
(Left to Right) Hia Excellency Sereywath Ek,Ambassador, Royal Embassy of Cambodia;Ali Suleiman Aujali,Minister,Libyan Liaison Office

"In order to remain special, they need to operate in a manner that is consistent with the teachings of their sponsoring religion and consistent with their mission," Berman said. "I have also learned that some governmental efforts to intrude into those workplaces can cause them to lose what makes them special."

Noting that sometimes decisions are not in favor of the institutions involved, Berman urged persistence and patience: "Don't lose heart. As with many things, this too shall pass," he said.
Senator mcCain accepts an award from Dr. John Graz, Executive Director,IRLA.

Brigham Young University law professor W. Cole Durham, Jr., was the other attorney-award recipient, honored for his contributions to religious freedom and support of various IRLA conferences. Graz paid tribute to Professor Durham's dedication: "You are a great ambassador for your country around the world, for your university and your church, and beyond that you are a fabulous ambassador of religious freedom," he said.

In response, Durham praised the IRLA: "One of the great privileges of my life has been to be associated with IRLA and work with people like John Graz and Bert Beach, and too many others to mention," he said.
Durham said he had just returned from a meeting in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi leaders anxious to help that nation maintain religious freedom. "While the challenges vary from country to country, we are all involved in a race not very much different from that in Iraq," he pointed out. "Can we actualize the values of religious freedom faster than their achievement is unraveled by the course of human events and man's inhumanity to man?"

Robert Nixon(left) accepts award from John Graz.

Durham added that members of the IRLA are also interested in the cause of liberty: "I have felt how the shared commitment to freedom of religion or belief overcomes distance, so I can say of many in the field, this is my brother or this is my sister," he said.

Also speaking at the event was U.S. Representative Roscoe Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, a Seventh-day Adventist who was honored for his religious freedom efforts. Bartlett said he believed America's unique status in the world stems in part from its commitment to individual liberty.
The banquet hall during Senator McCain's speech.

"One of the reasons we are such a great nation is because there is no other country, there is no other constitution, there is no other Bill of Rights, that so supports the rights of the individual," he told the audience.

Mark A. Kellner is a freelance writer and newspaper columnist currently based in Rockville, Maryland.

Article Author: Mark A. Kellner