WASHINGTON (ABP) – Directors of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, meeting in Washington Oct. 4-5, discussed the tenuous state of religious freedom in America and heard of the organization’s continuing search for property on Capitol Hill.
At their annual meeting, the advocacy group’s leaders focused much of their conversation on recent flare-ups over the religious freedom of Muslims in the United States and recent surveys that show high levels of public misunderstanding about the First Amendment’s religion clauses.
In his report to the board, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker noted he had just returned from a summer-long sabbatical when controversies over a proposed Islamic center in New York City and a fringe Florida pastor’s plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 exploded in the international media.
“Although I went away for the summer, religious liberty and the fights to protect religious liberty and the threats to it did not,” he said. “The week leading up to Sept. 11 each year is always a trying time, but this year, as you know, it was exacerbated by the controversy over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan and the Quran burning.”
Walker cited a recent Freedom Forum First Amendment Center survey that found, among other discouraging results, that more than a quarter of respondents believed religious freedom shouldn’t apply to groups that most people consider fringe or extreme.
“The American experiment of religious liberty has been successful, in large measure … because it is able to assimilate and protect the religious freedom of those fringe or extreme groups,” he said. “Sometimes [the majority has been dragged] kicking and screaming, but we’ve been able to do it in the main, nevertheless.”
But, Walker emphasized, vigilantly educating the public about the BJC’s broad understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom for all people is eternally necessary. Although constitutions and courts protect minority rights, ultimately majority beliefs can influence how governing documents are written and interpreted.
“In the final analysis in a democracy you’ve got to be able to convince a majority over time that you’re right in how you understand that Constitution, that First Amendment,” he said.
Directors went into a closed session to discuss the state of a 5-year-old capital campaign to raise funds for a new BJC headquarters facility near the Capitol. Although the board first authorized BJC officials to begin looking for property for the center in 2007, they still have not found a suitable location.
Following the meeting, Walker issued a statement saying that BJC’s “vision for a Center for Religious Liberty on Capitol Hill remains focused and reachable” and that the organization “is grateful for the $3.26 million in gifts and pledges” that campaign donors have made so far.
“While we have not yet reached our $5 million goal, we are already looking at potential property sites,” Walker said. "We’ll continue to raise funds and view available property until the right opportunity comes along.”
In other business, the directors unanimously adopted a $1.2 million budget for 2011. The slight increase over this year’s $1.16 million figure represents what treasurer Gary Walker called “basically … a flat budget with a marginal increase, reflecting the economy.”
The organization re-elected four officers to second one-year terms of service: Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, as chair; Philip Thompson, a professor at Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota, as vice chair; Jim Hill, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, as secretary; and Gary Walker, an attorney in Tampa, Fla., as treasurer.
BJC staff and directors also thanked Richard Ice for 40 years of service on the BJC board. The retired president of American Baptist Homes of the West, Ice continues to represent the American Baptist Churches USA on the BJC and serves as chair of the organization’s endowment committee.
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.
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