By K. Hollyn Hollman, BJC General Counsel

With the opening of the Center for Religious Liberty, the BJC is poised to strengthen its advocacy in the nation’s capital and beyond. As we celebrate this new beginning, we also rededicate ourselves to our mission and to expanding our reach in the future.

All living former BJC general counsels gathered at the opening event for the Center for Religious Liberty. From left to right: Oliver “Buzz” Thomas (General Counsel 1985-1993), Brent Walker (1993-1999, Executive Director 1999-present), Melissa Rogers (1999-2000), and Holly Hollman (2000-present). The BJC’s first general counsel, John Baker, was named to the position in 1979 and served in that role until he passed away in 1985.

Throughout our history, the BJC has demonstrated its commitment to defending and extending religious freedom for all, working in cooperation with others. At the same time, we recognize that if we are to honor the Baptist legacy of religious freedom, as well as to continue to have influence and be successful in our efforts, we must tailor our work to meet the changing needs of each generation. Fortunately, the BJC has invested its advocacy resources in a variety of venues — churches, schools, legislatures and courts — to respond to the steady stream of contemporary threats to religious freedom. With the Center’s expanded capacity for staff and visitors, we are in a better position to share our expertise, collaborate with others and meet new challenges.

As with any move, preparation for the opening of the new Center required some house cleaning. During the months leading up to and during construction, the staff sorted through dozens of file drawers filled with the work of the BJC in decades past. As we reduced files full of documents, photos and brochures and prepared materials for archiving, we were inspired by the work of former members of the staff in legislative and litigation matters. We also were amazed by the breadth of those with whom the agency has worked. Some of what we uncovered is now on display in our new offices to share these stories with our visitors and bear witness to the longstanding Baptist commitment to freedom and the power of cooperation.

Of course, the collaborative way the BJC works is built into our structure by virtue of being a “joint” endeavor of our member bodies. That model extends beyond Baptist life to the work we do in coalitions with other religious, civil liberties, education and advocacy organizations. We understand that our success is tied to our ability to work with others for shared goals. The Center provides a new home for hosting conversations and deepening the partnerships necessary to defend religious freedom for all. Our location, just across the street from the Senate office buildings, provides a convenient place for organizing press events or visits with congressional offices.

Our proximity to the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court has long been an asset. In addition to the work we do to monitor legislation and educating members of Congress and their staffs, a consistent part the BJC’s advocacy efforts has been in the U.S. Supreme Court. As members of the Supreme Court bar, BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker and I are able to attend oral arguments witnessing the important role of the Court firsthand, as well as participating in religious liberty cases through our amicus work.

As the final arbiter of constitutional law, the Supreme Court can have a profound effect on our country’s religious liberty. It was, therefore, a great honor to have Justice Stephen Breyer join us as a guest at the opening of the Center for Religious Liberty. In his brief remarks, Justice Breyer said he counts on friend-of-the-court briefs because they come from groups that often know more about the issues at hand than the lawyers representing the parties. His gracious and kind comments affirmed our continuing focus on this aspect of our religious liberty advocacy.

It would have been an honor for any of the nine justices to attend the Center opening, but hosting Justice Breyer seemed particularly fitting. He is known for his pragmatic approach to constitutional law, both in his work on the Court and his writings generally. He has written two books that teach us about the Constitution, the judicial process and the importance of civic participation: Active Liberty: Interpreting our Democratic Constitution (2005) and Making Our Democracy Work (2010). He has articulated a vision of the U.S. Constitution as a document that provides a basic and enduring set of values intended by the Founders to adapt over time to the needs of our democracy. The Constitution, he has argued, should be viewed as containing “unwavering values that must be applied flexibly to ever-changing circumstances.”

That certainly seems apt to the undertaking of the BJC in defending religious liberty as we begin this new chapter of our work together.

From the October 2012  Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.

This photo of President Bill Clinton at the signing ceremony for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, accompanied by a pen he used to sign the bill, is a reminder of one of the BJC’s most significant legislative achievements. It came in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). Leading a coalition of more than 60 groups, the BJC worked to pass RFRA, restoring the pre-Smith free exercise standard as a matter of federal statutory law. The photo and pen are on display in the BJC’s legal conference room.

 

Progressive National Baptist Convention President Carroll Baltimore views some of the history exhibited in the Center for Religious Liberty. Displayed are a selection of volumes by and about the BJC’s 15 member bodies, a collection of photos taken on various college and seminary campuses for the BJC’s annual Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, items representing the legacy of Baptists through history and much more.

 

During a tour of the Center for Religious Liberty, Brent Walker shows Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer a photo of Justice Harry Blackmun speaking at a meeting of the Baptist Joint Committee in the early 1990s. Blackmun was Breyer’s predecessor on the Court.

 

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer signs the BJC guest book as Walker and Holly Hollman look on.