After Kim Davis, A New Way Forward for Religious Freedom?

Pop anthem blaring, crowds cheering, and Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis hand in hand with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. No matter what your particular religious or political views, I suspect everyone who watched the spectacle surrounding Ms. Davis' release from jail last week experienced some kind of strong emotion, whether it was empathy or outrage.

The rally was a polarizing political display, which, if nothing else, demonstrated one indisputable fact: the notion of "religious freedom" as a unifying force in American civil society has utterly unraveled.

Those of us in the religious freedom advocacy community look back at the halcyon days of bipartisan cooperation, circa 1993, when everyone -- from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, from the ACLU to the National Association of Evangelicals, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a host of other religious and political organizations -- all rallied to the idea of ramping up federal protection for First Amendment religious freedom rights of Americans. It wasn't overly controversial. Religious freedom was seen as a unique, quintessentially American element of our shared heritage. It was an ideal our nation had nurtured and protected, and which, in turn, we'd helped graft into the language of international law and diplomacy.

Now, "religious freedom" is often linked with what's broken in America's fractured polity. And the fault lines continue to grow. What does religious freedom really mean, in practice? What should be its legal scope? How far should the state go in accommodating strong religious belief?

Regardless of the specifics of the Kim Davis case, the partisan wrangling surrounding it is obscuring the larger value and significance of the religious freedom ideal -- the fundamental role of religious liberty in the pantheon of human rights, and it's importance in building strong, stable liberal democratic societies. Instead, the idea of religious freedom has been conscripted into political battle; it has become a trigger phrase that immediately polarizes opinions and divides us.

What can be salvaged from the wreckage? The months and years ahead will tell. But if we take a moment to look outside America's overheated domestic politics, I think there are reasons to be optimistic.

There's an event, for instance, coming up this weekend in New York City that shows that the unifying power of the religious freedom ideal is far from spent. On Thursday, September 17, an astonishingly diverse group of some 100 parliamentarians and legislators from almost 50 countries will convene a unique multinational effort to strengthen protection for freedom of religion or belief.

The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) is relatively new to the international stage. The group was launched last year in Oslo, Norway, with the goal of building an informal network of parliamentarians and legislators from around the world who would combat religious persecution and advance freedom of religion or belief.

Thirty parliamentarians attended the first meeting in Oslo and signed a charter pledging to work together, across international lines, toward their common goal of religious freedom, as defined by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, parliamentarians and legislators in Brazil, Norway, Pakistan, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have convened local panels in support of religious freedom.

Here, within American domestic politics, we're grappling with deep-rooted ideological differences. But it's fair to assume that this group of legislators will bring far deeper differences. They come from Western Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and North America. They're Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Christians of many different stripes. Politically, these government leaders represent the left, the right, and everything in between. Culturally, they'll bring vastly different worldviews, expectations, and assumptions to the table.

Yet, they're willing to work together and to find common cause around the idea that nations are stronger and safer, and our world is more peaceful, if religious freedom is respected and protected. Despite their many differences, they can agree that safeguarding human dignity requires the broadest possible protections for matters of personal conscience and belief. They can agree that religious minorities shouldn't have to forfeit the opportunity to study or to earn a living because of their faith. They can agree that promoting religious freedom is the best long-term antidote to extremism and religiously motivated violence.

Here in the United States, we can learn from these parliamentarians' willingness to find common ground and to work toward a shared goal, despite their tremendous personal differences. It's an unprecedented gathering with an ambitious agenda, and it reminds us that religious freedom is a concept that should unite people, not push them apart. Let's hope that we can see more efforts like this, as together, we forge a new way forward.