Concerns and Counsel

“Everyone, from kindergarten children through the ranks of professionals and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors, can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important."

Dear brothers and sisters, we are pleased to be here in Texas in this Regional Religious Freedom Conference. In the last few weeks thousands of Latter-day Saints have journeyed to Louisiana to help clean up the homes of fellow citizens suffering from the devastating floods there. Those Mormon Helping Hands—at latest report over 13,000 from 10 states—will never be forgotten by those who received and observed their loving service!

We are gathered here to speak of another need, not requiring the familiar uniform of yellow shirts and work gloves, but vital nonetheless. We hope that what we say here will explain why members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must be committed to maintaining the free exercise of religion and why all citizens of this nation should be supportive of this effort. That support is urgently needed at a time when powerful forces—political and social—are seeking to dilute or replace it with other rights or priorities.


I.

A paramount motive for this Regional Religious Freedom Conference, which we hope to repeat elsewhere, is to get our members involved in a constructive way in the vital contest for religious freedom. Not many can be elected to public office. Not many can plan the strategy or author the key arguments to be used in this contest. Not many will go to law school or seek a degree in political science to serve this cause. But literally everyone, from kindergarten children through the ranks of professionals and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors, can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important. I love Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s definition of religious freedom:

“The right to choose, change, declare and act upon your faith. It includes the freedom to worship, but it is much more than that. It is the right to ‘exercise’ or practice your religion without interference from government, subject to government’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of all its citizens in a pluralistic society."1

The theme of our effort is “fairness for all, including people of faith.” Some have misunderstood that theme to imply that fairness for all will lead to compromising our beliefs or our doctrine. The media furthered that misunderstanding by labeling a recent fairness effort in the Utah legislature as “the Utah Compromise.” We deny any intent to compromise our doctrine or religious belief or to invite any others to compromise theirs. We are here to talk about how to preserve religious freedom while living with the differences that exist in our society, among friends and neighbors, and even within our families. We are also here to consider how to explain our goals and efforts without encouraging the misunderstandings that detract from our common desires to live in an atmosphere of goodwill and peace.

In so many relationships and circumstances in life we must live with differences. We are taught to live in the world but not be of the world. We must live in the world because, as Jesus taught in a parable, His kingdom is “like leaven,” whose function is to raise the whole mass by its influence (see Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6–8). His followers cannot do that if they associate only with those who share their doctrinal beliefs and practices.2

While our differences should not be denied or abandoned, as followers of Christ we should live peacefully with others who do not share them. As a Book of Mormon prophet taught, we must press forward, having “a love of God and of all men” (2 Nephi 31:20). Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people as He has loved us, be good listeners, and show concern for sincere beliefs. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious.

In this country we have a history of tolerant diversity—not perfect but mostly effective at allowing persons with competing visions to live together in peace. Most of us want effective ways to resolve differences without anger and with mutual understanding and accommodation. We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails. We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to epithets, boycotts, firings, and other intimidation of one’s adversaries. We need to promote and practice the virtue of civility.


II.

Latter-day Saints are committed to the free exercise of religion because the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation is only possible under the free exercise of religion guaranteed in our God-inspired Constitution. Thus, for us, the free exercise of religion is not just a basic and cherished principle of our Constitution; it is essential to God’s plan of salvation. In pursuit of that plan, all of the children of God must be free to act upon their choices. The free exercise of religion allows all men and women to choose to develop faith in God, to worship Him, and to act on their beliefs and choices. All of this permits the children of God to become what He wants them to become.


III.

We maintain that all citizens should be supportive of religious freedom because religion is uniquely valuable to society. Persons of faith therefore maintain that religious freedom is not just a concern of religious persons. Nonbelievers have a strong interest in religious freedom because it is a strong force for peace and stability in our pluralistic world. As one atheist observed in a recent book, “One does not have to be a religious believer to grasp that the core values of Western Civilization are grounded in religion, and to be concerned that erosion of religious observance therefore undermines these values.”3

Here is a list4—not complete but only illustrative—of the way churches, synagogues, mosques, and the organizations through which they work make a unique and indispensable contribution to society.5

      1.   A “core value” of Western civilization is the concept of inherent human dignity and worth. This concept—based on religious belief—is, of course, fundamental to the protection of human life and to the pursuit of all that is good for humanity.

      2.     Our robust private sector of charitable works in the United States originated with and is still sponsored most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses. This includes education, hospitals, care for the poor, and countless other charities of great value to our country.

      3.     Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption by pulpit-preaching and persons who had a clear religious vision of what was morally right.6 Examples include the abolition of the slave trade in England and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights movement in this country.

      4.     Our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior. For a large number of our citizens, religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to produce such voluntary compliance. There is, therefore, a strong public interest in the teachings of right and wrong in churches, synagogues, and mosques. It is sincere faith in God—however defined—that translates religious teachings into the moral behavior that benefits a nation. Thus, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wisely observed that “the social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief.”7

      5.   Along with their private counterparts, religious organizations serve as mediating institutions to shape and temper the encroaching power of government on individuals and private organizations.

      6.   Religion inspires many believers to service to others, which, in total, confers enormous benefit on communities and countries. (Remember the Mormon Helping Hands?)

      7.   Religion strengthens the social fabric of society. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has taught: “[Religion] remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. … Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history.”8

      8.   Finally, Clayton M. Christensen, who is hailed as a worldwide thought leader on business management and innovation, has written that “religion is the foundation of democracy and prosperity.”9 Much more could be said about the positive role of religion in economic development.

          In conclusion, we maintain that political realities and the religious values and actions of believers are so interlinked in the perpetuation of our society that we cannot lose the influence of religion in our public life without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms and our prosperity. We must help nonbelievers understand this reality, because the preservation of religious freedom depends upon public understanding and support for this vital freedom.


IV.

Despite the clear social values of religion, powerful forces are seeking to weaken the free exercise of religion. Often this involves seeking to dilute or replace this First Amendment guarantee with other rights or priorities, such as the powerful emerging right of nondiscrimination.10 Before speaking of that, I will review some general principles.

Many have observed that this country is now moving strongly toward secularism, with the resulting disconnect from traditional belief in God and the idea of ultimate accountability to the Divine.11 With the diminishing of public esteem for religion, the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening. Religion is surely under siege by the forces of political correctness that seek its replacement by other priorities.

Despite significant popular support for the idea of religious freedom, a prominent legal scholar writes that “fewer people today seem to recognize or care about the immediate need for legal protections rooted in the free exercise of religion. One reason for this change is that many past challenges to religious freedom are no longer active threats. … These changes mean that as a practical matter, many Americans no longer depend upon the free exercise right for their religious liberty. They are free to practice their religion [which for many is “largely aligned with contemporary liberal values”] without government constraints.”12

In addition, there are, of course, a growing number of Americans who have no need for free exercise protections because they disclaim any religious affiliation or participation.

Encouraged by these realities, some public policy advocates have attempted to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making laws in our democracy. Some of these characterize the free exercise of religion as protecting no more than the privilege of worshipping in the protected space of homes, churches, synagogues, or mosques. Beyond those protected spaces, the argument goes, religious believers and their organizations have no First Amendment protection—not even normal free speech guarantees—because religious voices, especially in the public process of lawmaking, are simply an effort to impose religious beliefs on others, which is, of course, unprotected by the Constitution.

These arguments leave me wondering why any group of citizens with secular-based views are free to seek to persuade or impose their views on others by a democratic lawmaking process, but persons or organizations with religious-based views are not free to participate in the same democratic lawmaking process.

We should all understand that if one voice can be stilled, every other voice is potentially at risk of being silenced by a new majority that finds other arguments too “bigoted” or “hateful” for the public square.


V.

How should we resolve current conflicts between nondiscrimination and the free exercise of religion? Our main message is that we should all cease fire in the culture wars and join in efforts to achieve fairness for all. In our pluralistic society all must learn to live peacefully with laws, institutions, and persons who do not share our most basic values.

In a Church magazine article based on a talk at BYU I used the metaphor of a two-sided coin. I said that respect or tolerance for the opinions or behavior of others is only one side of a two-sided coin. The other side is always what is true. The coin of tolerance must never be used without being conscious of both sides.13 That metaphor also applies to our current subject. One cannot seek a sensible balance between religious freedom on the one hand and nondiscrimination on the other hand without considering them also as two sides of the same coin. Neither should be considered in isolation. Both need to be furthered only with full consciousness of what is on the other side of the coin.

The first step is to try to understand the other side’s point of view. I liked the balanced way a Deseret News editorial characterized the competing considerations:

Sadly, recent events have highlighted how avoidable conflicts between religious liberty and nondiscrimination principles are exacerbated when advocates for nondiscrimination paint people of faith as bigots, and when people of faith fail to appreciate the brutal history of the basic human rights of marginalized groups, such as gays and lesbians.14

As noted there, we should encourage all to refrain from the common practice of labeling adversaries with such epithets as “godless” or “bigot.” This kind of name-calling chills free speech by seeking to impose personal, social, or professional punishments on the speech or positions of adversaries. A legal scholar’s recent book, which advocates pluralism, mutual respect, and coexistence, states that the label bigot is a “conversation stopper” because it “attributes a particular [negative] motive to an action.”15 He observes that this kind of labeling “frequently appears against religious believers and groups that maintain traditional beliefs about sexuality in their internal membership requirements.”16 Incidentally, my Webster’s dictionary defines bigot as “a person who is utterly intolerant of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from his own.”

Of course we will have differences that must be resolved. But those differences must not be allowed to obscure the undeniable reality that we are fellow citizens who need each other and who can resolve our differences through mutual respect, mutual understanding, and, where necessary, by political compromise or by the rule of law.

As the powerful emerging right of nondiscrimination has been accommodated in the law, many rank it above the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, contending that religious freedom must be curtailed wherever it conflicts with nondiscrimination.17 To such I say please respect the laws that provide unique protections for believers and religious institutions. Most notable is the uniquely positioned First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which singles out the “free exercise” of religion for special protection, along with free speech, free press, and freedom of assembly. The favored constitutional treatment of religion, speech, press, and assembly is based on their paramount significance in the founding of our nation and the necessity of protecting them to perpetuate all of Americans’ freedoms. The weakening of any part of the First Amendment weakens it all. Religion has an honored and uniquely favored place in our public life. The First Amendment framers’ guarantee of “free exercise of religion” rather than just “freedom of conscience” shows an intent to extend its unique protections to actions in accordance with religious belief.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband gave an appropriate warning in a BYU address a year ago. Said he: “Our society has become so blinded by its quest to redress wrongful discrimination against one class of people that it is now in danger of creating another victimized class: people of faith, like you and me.”18

Finally, I have a practical suggestion as we pursue fairness for all, including people of faith. We all know that our courts are the final fallback in these controversies and that the boundaries of religious freedom are rigorously policed by litigating organizations like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom. But in our efforts to accommodate important competing values, litigation should not be the first recourse. Courts are limited to resolving the specific cases before them. They are ill-suited to the overall, complex, and comprehensive rule-making that is required in a circumstance like this contest between two great forces, nondiscrimination and religious freedom.

I find great wisdom in the observation of Martha Minow of the Harvard Law School. In an influential article she concludes that “accommodation and negotiation can identify practical solutions where abstract principles sometimes cannot.”19 She observes that this approach “is highly relevant to sustaining and replenishing both American pluralism and constitutional protections for minority groups.”20

For example, in a recent conflict over individual free exercise and enforced nondiscrimination in housing and employment, the Utah legislature crafted a solution under the banner of “fairness for all.” It gave neither side all that it sought but granted both positions benefits that probably could not have been obtained without the kind of balancing that is possible in the lawmaking branch but not in the courts. “Fairness for all” was not a comprehensive treatment of all controversies on this subject. But it was a start—a path-breaking beginning. Hopefully, its example will be a model that will gradually encourage trust and accommodation among competing points of view on vital current controversies.


Conclusion

I have spoken of why religious freedom is vital to God’s plan of salvation and why it is so valuable to society at large that all citizens should support it. I’ve also spoken about the need to resolve conflicts between the currently powerful idea of nondiscrimination and the unique constitutional protections of the free exercise of religion.

Next, we will proceed from the generalities I have taught to hear from Lance Wickman, our highly esteemed general counsel of the Church, who will speak to us about strategies. Then Elder Von G. Keetch will lead us into what each of us should be doing about this. He will introduce Alexander Dushku, Matthew Richards, and Hannah Clayson Smith, who will speak about getting informed about religious freedom issues, how we can get involved, and how we should speak with courage and civility in answering hard questions.

I conclude with a message of hope. Despite obvious current concerns about the free exercise of religion, we must never forget that we are involved in the work of the Lord and He will bless us. As the prophet Nephi taught, we must “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men” (2 Nephi 31:20).

I testify of the Lord Jesus Christ, the light and life of the world, whose Church this is and whose servants we are. As His Apostle, I invoke His blessings upon the great work in which we are involved and upon each of us personally as we seek to serve Him. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


  1. D. Todd Christofferson, “All Have a Stake in Religious Freedom,” Church News, May 29, 2016, 6.

  2. See Dallin H. Oaks, “Loving Others and Living with Differences,” Ensign, Nov. 2014, 25–28.

  3. Melanie Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power (2010), xiii.

  4. This list is drawn primarily from Dallin H. Oaks, “Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion,” The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner, New York City, May 16, 2013.

  5. Also see Senator Orrin G. Hatch, “Protecting Our Religious Liberties,” a series of eight speeches delivered in the Senate, October to December 2015, especially “How Religion Benefits Society,” Dec. 1, 2015.

  6. See, for example, Rodney Stark, American’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists (2012).


  7. “The Christian Penumbra,” The New York Times, March 29, 2014; emphasis added.

  8. Jonathan Sacks, “The Moral Animal,” The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/opinion/the-moral-animal.

  9. Clayton M. Christensen, “Religion Is the Foundation of Democracy and Prosperity,” Feb. 8, 2011, http://www.mormonperspectives.com/2011/02/08/religion-is-the-foundation-of-democracy-and-prosperity.

  10. For example, see Warren Richey, “A Florist Caught Between Faith and Discrimination,” The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, Aug. 15 and 22, 2016, 26.

  11. See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace (2012), 562.

  12. John D. Inazu, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (2016), 22.

  13. Dallin H. Oaks, “Balancing Truth and Tolerance,” EnsignFeb. 2013, 25–31.

  14. “RFRAs Under Attack,” Deseret News, Apr. 12, 2015, 12. For another, more detailed, expression of balance, see “Contemporary Hostility to the Free Exercise of Religion” at https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/contemporary-hostility-free-exercise-religion.

  15. John D. Inazu, Confident Pluralism, 98–99.

  16. John D. Inazu, Confident Pluralism, 98.

  17. See, for example, Chai Feldblum, 'Moral Conflict and Liberty: Gay Rights and Religion,' 72 Brook. L. Rev. 61, 115 (2006).

  18. Ronald A. Rasband, “Faith, Fairness, and Religious Freedom,” Ensign, Sept. 2016, 29.

  19. Martha Minow, Should Religious Groups Be Exempt from Civil Rights Laws? 48 B.C.L. Rev. 781, 849 (2007).

  20. Martha Minow, Should Religious Groups Be Exempt from Civil Rights Laws? 783.