Earlier this month in Rome, Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon made a bold case for religious freedom, saying it “goes to the very heart of what it means to be human.”

Professor Glendon was speaking at an international conference titled “Universal Rights in a World of Diversity: The Case for Religious Freedom.” It is a “universal right” precisely because religious freedom is so central to being human and to sustaining free and just societies.

Religion has provided for humankind hope, purpose, aspiration and compassion. Freedom of religion secures the inalienable human right to choose and live according to one’s deepest and most centrally held beliefs and values. In that way, religious freedom is not just tolerance of others’ beliefs (or nonbelief). In fact, it is the moral basis of a free society where competing beliefs are respected and allowed to flourish. It engenders a social cohesion and civility by recognizing that any individual, association or faith group, no matter how large and important, is only as safe and secure in its rights as any other individual, association or faith group, no matter how small and insignificant.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, calls religious freedom a “vital human right.”

But challenges to religious freedom are real and increasingly frequent. In many countries, Glendon says, religious freedom is being “trumped by a range of other claims and interests.” Even in democratic countries, religious believers are experiencing “marginalization and even outright discrimination.”

These are the consequences, Glendon says, when “influential figures … portray religion as a source of social division and treat religious freedom as a second-class right.” She counters with the growing body of empirical evidence that strongly suggests otherwise:

  • “Some studies indicate that violence actually tends to be greater in societies where religious practice is suppressed and that promotion of religious freedom actually advances the cause of peace by reducing interreligious conflict.”
  • “Recent research in the social sciences also suggests that there is a significant positive correlation between levels of religious freedom and measures of other economic, social and political goods, while, conversely, the denial of religious liberty correlates with the denial of such goods.”
  • “One study concludes that ‘the presence of religious freedom in a country mathematically correlates with the longevity of democracy’ and with the presence of civil and political liberty, women’s advancement, press freedom, literacy, lower infant mortality and economic freedom.”

An international study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billon people “live in countries with heavy restrictions on religion.” In the United States, religious freedom issues are complex and often unsettling. This can be especially true in trying to resolve, as Elder Oaks observed, “what equal rights demand and what religious rights protect.”

In an increasingly pluralistic American society and global community, the “problem of fostering habits of respect and tolerance for the religions of others remains acute,” says Professor Glendon. It is that very plurality that makes religious freedom and its defense so critical.