“I do not know where you would find a group like this outside the United Nations anywhere,” said then-President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Gordon B. Hinckley as he addressed the delegates of the annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU 16 years ago.
In Hinckley’s remarks, he also congratulated BYU law professor W. Cole Durham Jr. for founding the conference in 1994. Initially, the conference was simply meant to focus legal scholars on the intersection of law and religion. However, the work of Durham and many, many other colleagues did not end there. They needed an academic center to organize and formalize these discussions.
Formally launched on Jan. 1, 2000, with Durham as its director, the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) announced its mission to “secure the blessings of religious liberty for all people everywhere.” Twenty years later center-hosted conferences and scholarly contacts have opened opportunities for law reform and constitution-building activities in more than 50 countries worldwide.
“I think the Center has turned out to be one of the remarkable developments in the history of the law school,” Durham said. “Something that has put us on the map globally and enabled us to have significant impact.”
One such impact includes partnering with and helping to establish sister organizations, like the G20 Interfaith Forum, where Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Sister Sharon Eubank spoke in 2019.
Current director Brett Scharffs believes a pinnacle endeavor for the ICLRS has been its participation in what he calls the Human Dignity Initiative, which culminated in the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere.
“This work involves that kind of deep rethinking of the issues behind some of the most polarized issues of our time,” Durham said, citing his ultimate goal is to bring people together and find ways to live in “peace, stability and mutual respect.”
Those who have worked and supported the ICLRS state that they share a deep sense of appreciation for the innumerable hands, hearts and minds that have carried the work forward. They speak of an extraordinary sense of camaraderie, commitment and consecration. They have experienced in some measure the high adventure of working to advance and to witness the unfolding of, according to them, one of the most fundamental principles of human existence: the freedom of religion.
In his address 16 years ago, Hinckley also said, “When we are all together, we may have different theological understanding, but we all have a common obligation and privilege, and that is to reach out, to assist those in need wherever they may be or whatever their problem may be.”
BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies has taken this obligation seriously for twenty years and plans to continue to fulfill this obligation for many more years to come.