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Students, professors and donors create a new initiative promoting religious freedom and human dignity

portrait shot of student wearing white against a white backdrop making the hand motions of the Catholic sign of the cross
Photo by Emarie Majors

For the last couple of months, a small group of students within the Political Science Department have been preparing the agenda for a new initiative at BYU–Hawaii, explained student lead of the initiative, Taylor Nikolaus, a senior from Arizona majoring in political science. Nikolaus said the initiative, which focuses on religious freedom and human dignity, is the beginning of an international network beneficial for BYUH students’ future careers and personal lives.

Dr. Troy Smith, professor in the Faculty of Business & Government and one of three faculty advisors for the initiative, said, “It’s about raising awareness so students can think through those issues [of limitations of religious freedom] themselves, rather than just following whoever has the loudest or most emotional voice or what maybe seems most reasonable.”

Thomas Nebeker, a senior from California majoring in political science and student fellow (paid student) of the initiative, said the initiative is not a response to what has happened on campus, but rather what the student body will do after they leave campus.

“I’m most excited to see the people actually get active and realize this is the beginning of an international network,” Nebekar said.

A student-based initiative

The mission statement for the initiative is: “The religious freedom and human dignity initiative seeks to advance international awareness and support for religious liberties and human dignity for all. It is housed in the BYUH political science program.”

Smith said the initiative started when donors reached out to the BYUH Political Science Department wanting to fund a program for religious freedom.

“The donors wanted to promote religious freedom. We wanted to promote other things, and it was our side that insisted on adding human dignity [to the initiative]. They agreed to it,” said Dr. Smith. After setting terms on both sides, they set up the structure, he said.

In addition to himself, Dr. Smith said there are two other faculty advisors for the initiative: Associate Professor Michael Murdock and Adjunct Assistant Professor II Jennifer Kajiyama Tinkham, as well as a group of student fellows who make up the executive committee.

Smith said all the funding from the donors goes to the students. None of it goes to the professors because they have encouraged the students to take the lead, he said.

“We [told the students], ‘We’re advisors, but you guys are the ones who have to figure out what to do and how to promote the mission of the initiative.’ So, it’s been a real pleasure to watch the students work through and figure this out,” Smith explained.

Nebeker said they have been researching, planning events and talking to professionals from all over the world for the last couple of months. “We’re really excited to kick off the Fall Semester and help students understand how [religious freedom and human dignity] affect us.”

Smith said getting the student body engaged in this issue can help students develop professional skills.

Angela Morales, a senior from the Philippines majoring in political science, said, “It is a program made for the students. It is about advancing religious freedom and human dignity in their own countries.”

Morales added it does not matter what church the individual belongs to. “It’s not a matter of religion. It’s a matter of religious liberty.”

Why religious freedom and human dignity

Nikolaus said if a student isn’t studying political science, they can still join because the topic applies to everybody. “It affects our daily lives. It affects whether you are religious or not. It’s not just the freedom of religion. It’s the freedom of conscience and thought.”

Their work is focused on portraying how religious freedom helps societies grow and flourish and creates happy individuals, Nikolaus said.

“Religious freedom isn’t only about practicing your religion. It is also the freedom not to practice a religion,” she said.

Smith said the topic has become more important since there has been a growing intolerance for religious freedom in today’s society, which often is justified in the name of tolerance. He said, “It’s important for [BYUH students] to understand the value of religious freedom and human dignity, to understand how it’s being limited and oftentimes constrained in unnecessary ways, and what can be done to help foster and promote religious freedom.”

One of the initiative’s main goals, Smith said, is to help students think through the debate regarding religious freedom. “It gives students a skill set of how to advocate for these ideas, from anywhere from city council meetings to larger international organizations.”

Opportunities for students

Nikolaus said she is excited for the student body to become involved since they have been working mostly with volunteers from around the world, including the head of the International Center of Law and Religious Studies at BYU Law.

Attending forums, joining discussions and connecting with other students around campus are just some of the many opportunities students have to support the initiative, she said.

Students who decide they want to do more than participate in activities can become volunteers to write reports, work with the student fellows, attend meetings, create events and have the liberty to choose what they want to do for the initiative, Morales explained.

“We don’t just present something to [the student body],” said Nebeker, who is the event coordinator. “Students can help present and have an opportunity to do research themselves to learn and teach others.”

He continued, “It’s a way of getting your foot in the door.” The volunteers can move up and fill the spots for the student fellows while making connections at BYU Law and attending conferences in Washington, D.C., Nebeker said.

Go forth to serve

Morales said, “Our motto is to enter to learn, go forth to serve. We want people to be aware of this concept and be educated so they can see the implications of religious freedom and how it’s essential for their own countries. That’s our mission.”

Nikolaus said, “It’s one of those opportunities that doesn’t come very often, especially as undergraduates. This is our future. We want societies that are happy and flourishing with people who are growing. Liberties, like religious freedom and human dignity, do that.” •

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