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Religion and Speech: A View from Healy Lawn

Viet Phuong Dao, May 13, 2014

I have a confession to make.
Three years ago, when I decided to come to Georgetown, I did so despite the university’s affiliation with the Catholic Church. I was decidedly agnostic about the existence of a higher power and believed firmly in the virtue of a robust separation between government policy and religious beliefs. After three years, those beliefs have not changed. What has shifted is my view on the role of religion at my university.

People who know me well often raise their eyebrows when they hear that I work for the Religious Freedom Project. And I can’t blame them, since, at least at the surface, a secular agnostic like me has little reason to care about the free practice of religion, or the freedom to live one’s life according to one’s faith. Yet, when considered carefully and thoroughly, religious freedom is as central to my agnosticism and secularism as it is to a Muslim’s ability to build mosques in America, or a Catholic bishop’s ability to challenge the government’s contraceptive mandate. Religious freedom encompasses not only believers’ right to live their lives according to their respective faiths, but also non-believers’ right to live their lives unburdened by any religion’s strictures. And at an institution of higher learning like Georgetown, the liberty to openly discuss matters of faith adds great value to the educational experience for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Attending Georgetown, the first Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States, has heightened my awareness of the complex interconnectivity and tension between religious freedom and other rights. Anyone who knows Georgetown will no doubt recognize that interfaith dialogue is central to the life of the university. In Healy Hall, the seat of the university’s administration and home to the Office of Campus Ministry, a Hoya has his or her pick: the Jesuit priest, the Jewish rabbi, the Protestant minister, or the Muslim imam. The Berkley Center (I’m contractually obligated to give the BC a shout-out) devotes no small part of its time and effort to fostering and expanding interfaith dialogue. Conversations about faith—or perhaps faiths—and its role in both public and private life constitute an integral part of life on the Hilltop.

I should note that Georgetown as a private institution has no constitutional obligation to its students and faculty on matters of free speech or religious liberty. Indeed, it as a private Catholic entity even has constitutional rights to close its doors to non-Catholics. Yet the University has chosen to open its arms wide to followers of other faiths, as well as non-believers like me. And to a large extent, it has created space for conversation and debate, for people with different convictions to spar, and to collaborate, as intellectuals. Georgetown’s Catholic identity mixes with its open door policy to create an educational environment where neither the devout Catholic nor the hardened atheist can hide in his or her comfort zone. And for that, I am thankful that I signed that enrollment contract three years ago.
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Cornerstone is the blog of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The Cornerstone blog is the only online platform devoted exclusively to scholarly debate about the meaning and reach of religious liberty. Read more.