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Law, Religion, and Human Rights

Human rights are now the lingua franca of international law and global moral discourse, but the relationship of religion and human rights is complex. Religions provide conceptual frameworks for human rights, and religious communities are working at the forefront of human rights advocacy; however, religious communities also commit human rights abuses in the name of religion. The relationship between religion and the state is also increasingly framed in terms of rights, as both the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom from religion are asserted by peoples around the world. Contemporary analysis of human rights also requires the study of the tensions between religious freedom claims and other fundamental rights claims of sexual liberty and freedom of expression. 

For more than 25 years, the Center's research projects in Law, Religion, and Human Rights have explored these issues umder the leadership of many Center faculty, especially Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Michael J. Perry, Johan D. van der Vyver, and John Witte, Jr. The Center has probed deeply the historical and modern contributions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the development of human rights within their own religious communities and in national and international legal systems. The Center has also documented closely the essential place of religious freedom in the human rights paradigm. Our faculty and project participants have published scores of leading books in this field and a dozen journal symposia. We have hosted a dozen major international conferences on diverse themes from "Religious Humn Rights in Global Perspective," to "What's Wrong with Children's Rights?" 


Michael J. Perry

Johan D. van der Vyver

Research Director

M. Christian Green

Post-Doctoral Fellow 

Audra Savage

Project Director

Mark A. Goldfeder

Affiliated Fellows

Silas W. Allard, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Wendell R. Bird, Elizabeth Bounds, Kathleen A. Brady, Rafael Domingo, Mark A. Goldfeder, T. Jeremy Gunn, Benjamin Hertzberg, Allen D. Hertzke, Olga Kazmina, Justin Latterell, Ellen Ott Marshall, Joel A. Nichols, Shlomo C. Pill, Andrea Pin, Gideon Sapir, Audra Savage, Robert A. Schapiro, Charles A. Shanor, John Witte, Jr. 


The Restoring Religious Freedom project launched in 2015 to give students hands-on experience while providing accessible, nonpartisan information and opening up new opportunities for dialogue. Made possible by an anonymous $1 million gift, this four-year project provides students with internships and externships as well as the opportunity to work on amicus briefs and religious freedom cases. Through conferences and lectures, the project convenes scholars and students from around the world to share research in this growing field.


Q & A with the Experts: Johan D. van der Vyver

Johan D. van der Vyver, I. T. Cohen Professor of International Law and Human Rights, discusses his long career and his relationship with the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory. Learn more about van der Vyver's role in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa here

Human Rights and American Muslims: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, discusses human rights and being an American Muslim.

Freedom of Religion, Same-Sex Marriage, and the Catholic Church

Michael J. Perry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, gave the 2012 Currie Lecture. In his introduction, John Witte, Jr. describes Perry as "one of the world's great authorities on law, religion, and morality." 

Legacy Projects

A comparative legal analysis of proper grounds for limiting religious freedom in international law and in 25 national laws. Directed by Johan D. van der Vyver and T. Jeremy Gunn, this projet yielded two cnoferences and one journal symposium. This project was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Inc.
Most famously formulated in the American Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness" theme is an ancient and enduring Western ideal grounded in various Hebrew, Greco-Roman, Christian, and Enlightenment sources. Recent developments in positive psychology have brought the idea of happiness back to public attention with a flurry of books and undergraduate courses. By putting religion and science in conversation, and by focusing on the relation between altruistic love and happiness, this project retrieved some of the rich traditional teachings captured in this ideal and reconstructed them for the present, in light of new findings of the human and social sciences and of new liberties of constitutional democracies. Go here to learn more. 
This networking project was designed to take stock of the scholarship and build new bridges among scholars working on religion and human rights. Directed by John Witte, Jr., Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, and M. Christian Green, this project drew together 94 scholars from around the world, including seven in regional conferences, and yielded nine books and two journal symposia. This project was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.
This project was a comparative study of the use of religious family laws in various parts of Africa and in Western democratic nations with new African emigres. Diredted by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im and M. Christian Green, this project yielded a comprehensive ne website, 21 public forums in African lands, and a journal symposium. This project was funded by the Social Science Research Network.
This project represented a deep interdisciplinary exploration of children, with a focus on birth, naming, and growth; children's rights and rites; education and formation; child abuse, poverty, and homelessness; juvenile delinquency and violence; and public policy responses and reforms. Directed by Martin E. Marty and John Witte, Jr., this project yielded 13 major public forums, an international conference, and 24 new volumes and journal symposia. This project was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Inc., the John Templeton Foundation, and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.
This project analyzed the religious, moral, historical, and social foundations of law. Directed by Thomas C. Arthur and John Witte, Jr., the project featured a major conference and journal symposium. This project was funded by Emory School of Law.
An exploration of cultural transformation in Africa, with emphasis on the improvement of women's rights to and control over land as a vital economic resource and vindication of second-generation rights. Directed by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im and Johan van der Vyver, and drawing on 25 scholars, the project yielded two major conferences, one journal symposium, one volume, and a comprehansive new website. This project was funded by the Ford Foundation.
A systematic analysis of the past, present, and potential contributions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the cultivation and protection of human rights, particularly religious rights and liberties, in international law and in various nation-states in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Russia. Directed by John Witte, Jr. and Johan D. van der Vyver, and drawing on the work of 47 senior fellows, this project yielded seven regional conferences in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, one major international conference at Emory with 50 speakers and 750 participants, and 11 new volumes and journal symposia pubished in six languages. Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Inc.
This project analyzed the eroding protections of religious liberty in post-glasnost Russia, particularly for religious minorities and foreign faiths. Directed by Harold J. Berman and Michael Bourdeaux, the project involved ongoing negotiations among 24 scholars from Russia, Europe, and North America, and yielded three journal symposia and one volume. Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with collaboration from Keston Institute, Oxford.
An empirical and normative study of the new war for souls breaking out in various new democracies of the world between and among indigenous faiths and foreign proselytizing faiths. Directed by John Witte, Jr. and Johan D. van der Vyver, and drawing on the work of 97 scholars, this project hosted 13 regional conferences and nine new volumes and journal symposia. This project was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Inc.