The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown, already partnered with Notre Dame, recently created a trifecta with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in hope of promoting religious freedom through academic dialogues.

Thomas Farr and Timothy Shah, Georgetown professors and the director and associate director of the Religious Freedom Project, respectively, initiated this alliance between the Catholic and Baptist universities with Baylor professor Byron Johnson.

Last December, Georgetown and Baylor cohosted a conference in Rome called “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” and the two universities sponsored a symposium the day before the Supreme Court began oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Farr said that the partnership will help each community address questions about what religious freedom entails and its importance in society and on campus.

“The partnership is designed to study religious freedom — what it is, and why it is important to individuals and societies — and to disseminate knowledge about its relationships to other political, social, economic, intellectual and religious goods,” Farr wrote in an email. “For example, is religious freedom necessary for the consolidation and durability of democracy? For economic growth? For the equality of women in law and culture? If so, those are powerful reasons for a society to embrace this fundamental human right.”

Johnson, the founding director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, said that the partnership uses both conferences and research papers to raise academic awareness.

“Conferences [are] one way [to raise awareness]. The other is to write important papers and publish them in top journals. … You always try to publish top-scholarship high-quality journalism and to write books that colleagues will read and listen to,” Johnson said. “And we hope that research will show that religious freedom is tied to a bunch of different things, like the spread of democracy, the spread of unions and economic development. … Let the research do the talking.”

Farr said that this partnership stemmed from a personal friendship.

“The partnership was the brainchild of professor Johnson, professor Shah and myself,” Farr wrote. “We had known and admired each other’s work for years, and were looking for a way to collaborate on an issue — religious freedom — we all believe is vital for our nation and the world.”

Johnson echoed the sentiment of the partnership’s natural outgrowth from past cooperation and shared interest.

“As most things revolve around relationships, I’ve been a friend of Tom Farr and Tim Shah for many years. We’ve worked together before,” Johnson said. “Just out of conversations, we realized that we have common interests and one of those interests is religious freedom. We just thought, instead of working together occasionally, we should work together more regularly.”

Both Farr and Johnson mentioned the unusual collaboration between Catholic and Baptist universities considering the historical tension between Catholics and Protestants.

“Baylor University is the largest Protestant research university in the world, with a strong and vibrant Baptist identity,” Farr wrote, “Frankly, we like the idea of a Baptist-Catholic collaboration on religious freedom. When we met the Pope in 2013, he clearly liked this aspect of the Religious Freedom Project.”

Kelly Thomas (SFS ’15), who has worked as a research assistant on the Religious Freedom Project since last fall, also showed her support for this interfaith collaboration.

“I like the idea that it’s Catholic and Baptist. I think it’s not just the Catholics fighting the government again. It discusses issues that many people feel,” Thomas said. “And also Baylor is a massive research university. … Baylor University made a huge gift in getting more resources to the work we do.”

Apart from the two-day conference in Rome, where members of the Georgetown community met with Pope Francis, the two universities co-sponsored a half-day conference this past March in Washington, D.C., called “Everybody’s Business: The Legal, Economic and Political Implications of Religious Freedom.” These conferences have been positively received, and the next one, entitled “Philosophy of Religion,” will be held at Georgetown from Oct. 9 to Oct. 11.

Thomas Banchoff, vice president for global engagement and director of the Berkley Center, emphasized the goal of this partnership to raise awareness of the necessity of religious freedom.

“The partnership is an excellent opportunity to deepen scholarship, debate and public understanding about religious freedom.” Banchoff wrote in an email. “Through research, teaching and outreach activities, two leading centers at two leading universities are raising awareness of the critical importance of religious freedom in today’s world, at a time when religious persecution and violence is on the rise.

Paradoxically, this partnership has sparked controversy about the separation of church and state, since the project, which is focused on religious freedom, is headed by two institutions associated with conservative religions.

“I see efforts like this as just another attempt to erode support for separation of church and state — albeit dressed up in a fancy academic gown,” Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in an article in Deseret News National.

Farr refutes this claim.

“The separation of church and state is designed to protect the church from the state, not vice versa,” Farr wrote. “In the U.S. Constitution, the ban on the establishment of religion was intended, along with the free exercise clause, to ensure the active participation of all religious individuals and groups in American political life — on a basis of full equality with each other. Today that understanding is under threat from those who would privatize religion, and remove it from the public life of our nation.”

Johnson stressed the partnership’s embrace of pluralism and talked about some people’s unreasonable fears and stereotypes of proselytizing.

“We favor pluralism,” Johnson said. “The more voices the better, the more religious voices the better, no matter how diverse they are. So whenever someone wants to silence some of those voices, it concerns us. We think atheists should have just much a voice as any religious group should have.”

Katherine Landau (SFS ’17), president of Georgetown’s Secular Students Alliance, also acknowledged the importance of this partnership in creating interfaith dialogue.

“Interfaith dialogue is extremely important because it’s supposed to foster understanding between different groups of people,” Landau said. “It’s supposed to get rid of the ‘us-versus-them’ type of stigma that different groups have. And that translates as well to the secular community.”

Both Farr and Johnson said they hope that this partnership will continue into the future. Johnson said that the partnership plans to reach out to administrators at Princeton University.

“I think it makes good sense,” Johnson. “When you have more of a voice, your perspective also benefits from having these other voices and minds engaged. And it brings the best [results].”

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