By Cherilyn Crowe

What does it look like to live out religious liberty in real life? How are we supposed to uphold the First Amendment and stay true to our Baptist legacy in the middle of running errands or while we are on our daily commute?

Holly Hollman guided students at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, toward understanding religious liberty as it is protected by law and as it can be modeled in day-to-day life. She spoke on campus March 27-28 for the 2017 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State. The lectures were hosted and co-sponsored by Campbell University, a school informed and inspired by its Baptist heritage whose mission statement includes preparing students for purposeful lives and meaningful service.

Serving as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee since 2001, Hollman brought her experience in the legal world and in her daily interactions to share with students. She has written numerous friend-of-the-court briefs dealing with religious liberty, and Hollman regularly speaks to the media, churches, panel discussions and other groups about the legal and spiritual ways religious liberty is protected in this country.

“As individual Christians – or just as thankful Americans who inherited a legacy of religious freedom – we want to do our part to uphold the separation of church and state and embrace not just the law but the spirit of religious liberty in daily life,” she said.

For her first presentation, Hollman spoke to hundreds of undergraduate students in Campbell’s Connections program, which seeks to educate, challenge and prepare students to live and act responsibly in the world. Acknowledging the anxieties about new developments in the law and changes in the culture, she reminded them not to be fooled by those who play on fears and present easy answers to complex problems.

“There is a need for smart students like you to understand how we got here and engage in deliberate dialogue with people from different perspectives, and to affirm core principles of religious liberty to keep our differences from dividing us too deeply,” she said. “We need to recognize the importance of the separation of church and state as a means for ensuring religious liberty for all and reclaim the historic role of Baptists.”

Hollman explained that religious liberty is the right to believe and exercise or act upon religious conscience without unnecessary interference by the government.

“The right to believe, sometimes referred to as freedom of conscience, means you can make up your own mind about ultimate things — your place in the universe, your relationship to God or other Supreme Being and your relationship to other people,” she explained. “We are lucky in this country that we don’t fight too much about the right to believe, but that is not to be taken for granted. Prior to the founding era, religious tests and oath requirements for political positions were common.”

While the law in the United States protects our right to believe or not to believe and our right to exercise our beliefs (if we have them), Hollman explained how religious freedom claims can conflict with other laws and require courts to find an appropriate balance.

She pointed out that it is important to know what religious liberty is not. “Religious liberty does not mean that the law must reflect all of your religious values, even if your religion is the majority faith; it does not mean that the government can perform your religious duties for you or that you can use the coercive power of the government to make others conform to your religious beliefs,” she said.

Hollman explained that the American tradition includes the two Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to protect religious liberty for all: one protects the free exercise of religion and the other prevents a government establishment of religion.

She described how those two clauses create a “separation of church and state,” which is a phrase used as shorthand for a deeper truth: religious liberty is best protected when the institutions of church and state remain separate and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other.

“At the BJC, we embrace the separation of church and state because it is important to the protection of religious liberty. We don’t want government to unduly restrict religion, and we don’t want government to try to promote religion,” she said. “After all, whose religion should it promote? And where does that leave those who are not in the chosen religion?”

“When the government tries to aid religion — financially or otherwise — it not only runs the risk of discriminating among faiths, it also tends to regulate it and often waters it down, robbing religion of its vitality and independence,” Hollman continued. “That certainly does nothing for the cause of Christianity or any other religion.”

Hollman discussed the Baptist commitment to religious liberty for all in colonial America, and she encouraged the students to think about what this means when they encounter religious liberty ideas or conflicts at a deeper level as they continue their studies or engage with others.

“As you do, remember the promise of religious liberty that Baptists fought for, that our constitution and other laws have protected, and find ways in your life to affirm, protect and live out the promise of religious liberty, so that we secure it for the future and for each other,” she said.

For her second lecture, Hollman spoke at the Campbell University School of Divinity’s Butler Chapel to divinity students, church leaders and others from the greater community. She continued her call to embrace religious liberty every day.

“How will you affirm religious liberty in the opportunities that come your way?” she asked. “The first and perhaps most common way you will get to affirm religious liberty is when people ask that typical get-to-know you question: What do you do? Or maybe they’ll ask where you went to school or what you studied.”

Hollman encouraged everyone to claim their position in ministry in conversations, no matter if you are a full-time minister or just someone with knowledge of Baptist principles. When you engage in religious conversations in our religiously free and diverse society, she explained, you are upholding religious freedom.

“Bringing your whole self, including your religious perspective, to conversations is an act of religious expression and recognition of religious liberty,” Hollman said.

All of us are protected in bringing our beliefs to the public conversation, no matter if we are part of the Christian majority, members of minority religions or not religious, she explained.

“We need conversations. When we hear Christians or others complain that their religious freedom is threatened, we should pay attention,” she shared. “Conversations can help us understand what the fears are and what is at stake; and, when on closer examination the threat is not what it appears to be, how we can work together to ensure religious liberty for all.”

During Hollman’s lectures, she reminded people to be aware of the myriad ways you can see religious freedom in everyday life – from meeting people to being asked to pray to sharing your opinion in a political debate.

“Just as the BJC will continue our work in Congress and the Courts, the legacy we inherited likewise depends on each of us to live out religious liberty in real life to secure this freedom for the future,” she concluded.

While on campus for the lectures, other BJC staff members also engaged with students and the community.

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler delivered a sermon during the Divinity School’s chapel service on March 28, discussing what it means to love and know our neighbors.

“The dramatic surge in hate rhetoric and violence directed at religious minorities over the past several months is as much a threat to religious liberty as any law passed by Congress or executive order signed by the president,” she said. “And these individual acts require both a response from our officials but also from we the people. Not only must law enforcement investigate and prosecute criminal acts and political leaders denounce bigotry, but we as citizens and co-sustainers of our democracy must not abandon the important roles we play in protecting religious liberty.” [story continues below photo]

“We must be upstanders, not just bystanders,” Tyler proclaimed. “When we see bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance, we must speak up for our neighbor.”

The Baptist Joint Committee also visited classrooms at Campbell. BJC Education and Outreach Specialist Charles Watson Jr. gave presentations on the BJC’s work in undergraduate and graduate classrooms, and Communications Director Cherilyn Crowe discussed her work in a class called “Ministry of Writing” at the Divinity School.

To conclude the campus visit, Watson gave a presentation to hundreds of undergraduate students Wednesday morning, discussing how his previous work as a hospital chaplain led him to embrace standing up for the religious freedom of all people, and he connected his passions for music and caring for others to his passion for religious liberty.

J. Bradley Creed, the president of Campbell University, said he was pleased the BJC staff engaged students on campus with issues at the intersection of church and state.

“The Baptist Joint Committee has been a tireless champion for historic principles of religious liberty which sustain crucial freedoms for all in the United States,” he said. “The lectures from BJC leadership Amanda Tyler and Holly Hollman were challenging and informative, and the classroom visits and interactions with students on campus by BJC staff members were highly effective and well-received.”

The Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State began when the Shurdens, educators in Macon, Georgia, endowed the series in 2004 to educate others about the importance of religious liberty.

For more information on the lecture series and to watch videos from this year’s event, visit

From the March/April 2017 edition of Report from the Capital. You can also read the digital version of the magazine or view it as a PDF.