Law and Religion: Legal Victories and Tools for IRF

By JoAnne Wadsworth, Communications Consultant, G20 Interfaith Forum

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On Tuesday, January 30th, 2024, a session was held at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C. entitled “Law and Religion: Legal Victories and Tools for IRF.” Speakers included Stephanie Barclay, Faculty Director of the Religious Liberty Initiative at Notre Dame University; Bob Destro, Columbus Law School and Catholic University of America; Brett Scharffs, Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) at Brigham Young University; and Sarah Teich, Human Rights Action Group. W. Cole Durham, Jr., President of the G20 Interfaith Forum, moderated the session.

Cole Durham began the panel discussion by introducing the speakers by turn and inviting them to talk about some of the things they’d experienced—specifically focusing on things which have worked and had an impact.

Brett Scharffs

Scharffs began his comments by expressing his happiness about participating in a session on victories and success in an area where there is often so much reason for pessimism. He then focused in on his work with the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) and the lessons learned from his experience there.

He said ICLRS began its work when Cole Durham was asked to help with religious freedom laws in Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What was initially thought to be a ten-year project turned into something much bigger, since with over 200 countries in the world, in any given year, around ten percent of them are revising their laws concerning religion. Over the last 35 years, ICLRS has worked on law reform projects in more than 50 countries. Scharffs said the three central lessons learned from those experiences were:

  1. The importance of relationships – It’s virtually impossible to appear at the doorstep of a country and say you’re there to help reform their laws. It works much better when there’s an existing relationship of trust, and they reach out to ask for your help. Even with trust, it’s difficult to succeed in this area. Without trust, it’s impossible.
  2. Issues must be approached using international law and comparative law – not with an overly “American” perspective. Coming in genuinely and showing examples of how various countries have handled the same problem, then comparing those approaches to international standards, has proved most effective.
  3. Patience is key – The ICLRS has been doing conferences, working with universities, and building relationships in Vietnam for more than 20 years. Several years ago, as the country was working on a new law to register and regulate religious groups, they asked ICLRS to provide a legal analysis of the proposed law. Now, they want to go back again to improve the law they already have.

He concluded by reiterating that it is only by being trustworthy, patient, and utilizing international and comparative approaches that a difference can be made – and that difference is essential, as new laws are under consideration all over the world regarding religion. Some will make things harder for religious believers while others will make life better.

“The most important religious freedom issues are the least glamorous: registration issues, land issues and the ability to own land and buildings, visas and country permissions, the ability to employ people, et cetera. Hard work and engagement on these un-glamorous issues is essential.”

Stephanie Barclay

Barclay focused her comments on the work her program at Notre Dame (the Religious Liberty Initiative) has done in regard to Uighur people in China. She said the issue of the systematic violation of these people’s human rights, their genocide, their surveillance, their concentration camp conditions, and the violence against them is a huge problem to tackle, but there is so much beauty and resilience in their culture that it’s more than worth fighting for and preserving.

She said that, consistent with the division of academic focus and a clinical component in her program, she’s tried to make a difference on both fronts with this issue. On the academic front, as most law schools get significant funding from China, most don’t want to rock the boat. She said she was proud that her school has spoken up, and that she plans on continuing that agitation. They’re also trying to use legal tools to have some difference and hold China accountable for its actions, including working with a barrister in the UK to use Argentina’s influence to bring China accountable legally.

On the clinical front, she said that the work of human rights is often like the frequently-repeated starfish story – where throwing one starfish back into the ocean at a time will never make a difference for all the dying starfish on the beach, but it does make a difference for the one. She tries to have her students interact with real victims of this violence as much as possible, and see the impact of their efforts.

“We helped a woman find a safe home and asylum, and it was wild for my students to talk to her and hear her experiences. She was regularly abused by government officials in her own home, and she didn’t think it was even a big deal, because at least she wasn’t getting ‘disappeared.’”

Bob Destro

Destro focused his comments on how US foreign policy and the US approach to religious freedom can often get in the way of well-intentioned efforts. He said that, working in religious freedom in the US, he often felt like there was a set of implicit assumptions that weren’t nearly as helpful to religious freedom as people thought they were. Only when he shifted his career internationally was he able to understand what those assumptions were.

He said that his experience with long-term outreach over 20 years in Iran has taught him that talking about religion is the first door there to talking about anything else. However, a suspicion of religion is built into the USA’s history, so our government doesn’t like engaging  in that way.

On another front, Destro said human rights is often seen as an agenda for changing other societies, citing experiences working with the constitutional commission of Belize, who were under extreme pressure from the US and others to rewrite their constitution and bring in “3rd and 4th generation” human rights that smother individual freedom.

He said that often, whether intentionally or unintentionally, US foreign assistance funds get involved in religious manipulation and activities that undermine religious freedom around the world. With a $1.5 Billion foreign assistance budget at the state department, not enough care is taken to look deeply into where that money is administered and what the contracts say.

As an example, Destro cited how the US is largely paying for the operation of the Ukranian government, which is busily shutting down parishes and arresting priests of the Ukranian Orthodox Church.

“Many of these bureaucrats spending money to shut down these churches are getting involved in religious organizations that they know nothing about – going in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and screwing things up, because they think everyone should be congregational and agnostic. There’s a reason that governments are suspicious of NGOs and foreign assistance. Follow the money in American foreign policy. It’ll teach you a lot.”

Sarah Teich

Teich centered her comments on her small law practice and smaller charity’s experiences representing the Uighur community in Canada and the Jewish community in Nigeria. She said that her work with these minority groups presents an interesting and contrasting case study on what legal tools make sense and work in different situations.

“With the Uighurs, we’re not looking earnestly at international remedies. China has too strong of an influence at the UN, and things aren’t bearing much fruit, so we’re focusing on domestic initiatives. With Nigerian Jews, there’s already an open investigation into Nigeria at the International Criminal Court, so it’s more of an international focus. With human rights lawyering, you have to look at what’s going to work best and fit best.”

She outlined three main victories she’s seen working with the Uighur community domestically in Canada:

  • Last year, M62 passed in Canada to bring 10,000 Uighur refugees to the country from unsafe 3rd-party countries where they were at risk of deportation to China. Though imperfect, this civil-society-driven motion was progress.
  • Tackling Uighur forced labor in domestic court systems has proven most productive. We can stop the import of these products of forced labor to our countries. They worked to lodge complaints against the Canadian branches of 14 big-name companies where there’s evidence of Uighur forced labor in their supply chains (Nike Canada, Zara Canada, etc.) This is still in process, but wonderful progress is being made as they treat each complaint separately.
  • Federal court proceedings on Uighur forced labor are another channel that is slow but has potential. CBSA has the power to assume that any goods coming in from the Uighur region come from forced labor, putting the onus of proof that they’re clean on the supplier. They denied the original letter asking for this change, so Teich’s group rebutted in a federal court case. That court case was lost, but is now under appeal – and on the side, a bill has been started pushing for law reform in the area.

In Nigeria, Teich said they’re focused very much on international mechanisms. As there is a lot of media control in the country, not much of what’s happening on the ground gets out to the world. She’s speaking directly to the Jewish community, preparing witness statements, and sending those in. She’s also submitted a file talking about the persecution of Jews in Nigeria.


In conclusion, W. Cole Durham offered a few additional comments to what the speakers had presented. He said it was crucial for more people to understand that religious freedom isn’t necessarily politically aligned – that it affects everyone, both believers and nonbelievers.

He added that though we are often used to thinking about these issues in legal settings, solutions can often be found much more quickly at lower levels. When you map out who the people are who are making problems in specific countries, the problems can often get solved on the ground in ways that are much simpler than by vast, metaphysical legal channels.

“We must be conscious of micro and macro levels in religious freedom work, and we have to work at the level that we can work at. When governments are the bad actors in human rights scenarios, we frankly need both the ‘name and shame’ people AND the honest brokers doing what’s possible in trust relationships with those governments. We have to find balance. There’s so much to do, and a lot of opportunities to come together. Religious issues themselves are very complicated, and it’s difficult to find effective ways to work through these things.”

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JoAnne Wadsworth is a Communications Consultant for the G20 Interfaith Association and acting editor of the “Viewpoints” blog.