BJC's Walker to receive religious-freedom award - Word&Way

BJC’s Walker to receive religious-freedom award

RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) – The executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty will be honored for his efforts by a Virginia group that celebrates the United States’ first law codifying religious freedom.

The Washington-based BJC announced Dec. 8 that its executive director, Brent Walker, will receive the Virginia First Freedom Award from the First Freedom Center. The award will come at a Jan. 13 banquet in Richmond, where the First Freedom Center is headquartered.

The names of the award and center refer to the first 16 words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Those words establish both religious liberty and its guarantor, institutional separation between church and state.

Walker has served as the BJC’s executive director since 1999. After discerning a call to ministry, the Florida native left his position as partner in a prominent Tampa law firm in 1986 to enter Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He earned his master-of-divinity degree and was named the seminary’s most outstanding graduate before joining the BJC staff in 1989 as general counsel. He and his wife, Nancy, are members of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., where she serves on the pastoral staff.

Walker has worked on a host of religious-liberty issues during his career at the BJC. They range from fighting against laws that would allow government-sanctioned school prayer or encourage religious monuments on government grounds to supporting measures to expand protections for individuals and houses of worship to practice their faith without undue interference from governments or employers.

In a recent interview with an Associated Baptist Press reporter, outgoing Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) credited Walker and the BJC with providing him a valuable ally in his many congressional battles over church-state separation.

“I think the voice of the Baptist Joint Committee is perhaps the single most important voice in the defense of religious liberty and church-state separation because it is a voice of faith,” Edwards said. “And I think that … BJC has made a tremendous difference in the 20 years I have been in Congress, [especially] in beating back the Ten Commandments proposals and the school-prayer proposals.”

The First Freedom Center was established to commemorate the bicentennial of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and passed in 1786. It became the model, historians say, for the religion clauses of the First Amendment, which was submitted to the states in 1789 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights and ratified in 1791.

In recent years, the organization has expanded its focus from commemorating the statute to educating Virginians and other Americans about religious liberty. The center will also bestow national and international versions of the First Freedom Award at the Jan. 13 event. Previous recipients include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.


Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.