RICHMOND, Va. (ABP)—Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director J. Brent Walker was recognized Jan. 13 for his work advancing freedom of conscience and basic human rights for people of all faiths, traditions and cultures.
Walker was named the Virginia First Freedom Award winner, one of the three awards given annually by the First Freedom Center, a Richmond-based education organization. The awards recognize extraordinary advocates of religious freedom who have made remarkable contributions. The First Freedom Center also bestows International and National First Freedom Awards.
In accepting the award, Walker stressed the Baptist and Virginian commitment to protecting religious freedom for all, while pointing out that we still have a long way to go.
“It is my hope and prayer that we Virginians—in the tradition of Jefferson and Madison—and in partnership with the First Freedom Center and the Baptist Joint Committee—will lead out to fight for religious freedom for everyone unaided and unimpeded by any government authority and to learn to treat our fellow citizens as we would want them to treat us,” Walker said.
He said Americans should “accept and embrace our religious diversity on the cultural level,” including our Muslim brothers and sisters.
“It is not just how government treats religious liberty; it’s how we treat each others’ religion,” Walker said. “Ours is not a Christian nation, as some contend, but made up of many faiths, including now 17 percent who embrace no faith at all. Our plush pluralism is something to be celebrated, not something to be feared. And our biggest challenge today may be how we view Islam and treat our Muslim friends.”
Other 2011 award recipients were Asma Jahangir, who received the International First Freedom Award; and John Graz, who received the National First Freedom Award.
The Alexander Lebenstein Teacher Education Institute of the Virginia Holocaust Museum was awarded the Distinguished Service Award.
Jahangir served as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief from August 2004 to July 2010. The Rapporteur is a senior authority appointed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to investigate the status of religious freedom worldwide. Graz has served as the secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association since 1995.
“In honoring these champions of religious freedom, we shine light on one of the most pressing issues facing humankind today,” said Ambassador Randolph M. Bell, president of the First Freedom Center. “The ongoing quest to ensure that all societies of the world respect religious freedom as a fundamental human right is at the core of our shared aspirations for stability, peace and the protection of human dignity.”
Walker is both a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and an ordained minister. As executive director of the BJC, he works to uphold the historic Baptist principle of religious liberty, striving both to defend the free exercise of religion and to protect against its establishment by government. He has been published widely and routinely provides commentary on church-state issues in the national media.
Brent and his wife, Nancy, are members of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., where she is pastor for congregational care.
Brent Walker began his tenure at the Baptist Joint Committee in 1989 and became executive director in 1999. Before joining the BJC, Walker was a partner in the law firm of Carlton, Fields in Tampa, Fla. He left the firm in 1986 to enter Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he earned a master of divinity degree and was named the most outstanding graduate. Having taught 10 years as an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, Walker now serves as an adjunct professor at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Previous recipients of the Virginia award include Melissa Rogers of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs, First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles C. Haynes and civic leaders James E. Ukrop and Robert S. Ukrop.
Other past recipients of First Freedom Awards include former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard C. Holbrooke, former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards and award-winning television documentary producers Bill and Judith Moyers.