In Defense of Zion and Her People


Dear brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues, I'm honored to be here with you tonight. I feel the weight of this assignment. It’s Friday night—date night—and yet here you are at a law society devotional, no doubt hoping the refreshments will be better than the speaker! I assure you they’ll be much better, so hang on!

I’m especially grateful to be here in the presence of apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, including President Dallin H. Oaks. I hope we never take for granted the great blessing of being guided by living prophets, seers, and revelators. Under their direction, we are called to the great work of gathering all who are willing to let God prevail to the ordinances and covenants of the Restored Gospel and to the fellowship, communion and safety of Zion.

As President Russell M. Nelson has declared, “That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty.” 1 This latter-day gathering has been the focus of prophetic vision and the burden of our heavenly charge from the Church’s earliest days. It is a work of global sweep and eternal significance. It will require unprecedented faith, unprecedented organization, and unprecedented resources.

And it will require religious freedom—not perfect religious freedom, because we aren’t going to have that, but a sturdy, generous, consistent, well-defended religious freedom.

And that means, despite all the really harsh things the scriptures say about us, it will also require faithful and skilled lawyers

For nearly 30 years, it has been my great privilege to represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on matters of religious freedom. Tonight, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on the challenges that lie before us and the kinds of religious freedoms I envision the Church and our people needing in the years to come. Although I speak from a Latter-day Saint perspective, my thoughts apply as well to the sacred aspirations and freedoms of people from other faith communities. I offer these reflections as my own personal views and not as the official position of the Church or its leaders.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

In the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, that classic novel set in the time of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens famously wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

So may it be said today of religious liberty in the United States. In the Supreme Court, these may well be the best of times. Scholars say the current Supreme Court is the most favorable to religious liberty in American history. 2 I think they’re right. Some of the most important recent Supreme Court victories were controversial and hotly contested, and yet significant majorities of the Court upheld religious liberty.

For example, in a recent case the Supreme Court unanimously held that the First Amendment protects Catholic Social Services’ right to participate in the City of Philadelphia’s foster care program without abandoning its religious beliefs and practices regarding traditional marriage. 3

In another, the Supreme Court ruled, again unanimously, that a religious school had an absolute right to decide whether to retain a ministerial teacher, even if doing so conflicted with federal civil rights laws. The Court held that religiously sensitive decisions about ministers must be left to ecclesiastical authorities. 4 Since then, the Supreme Court has further strengthened this so-called “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws. 5

The Court also upheld the free speech right of a designer of custom websites not to support messages about marriage that conflict with her religion. This decision was highly controversial and not unanimous, but the Court stood firm in vindicating free-speech and religious rights. 6

LGBT rights sometimes conflict with religious freedom. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has gone out of its way to provide assurances that religious rights will be protected even as LGBT rights are expanded. In the Obergefell same-sex marriage decision, the Court generously acknowledged that “[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises,” and then it assured nervous churches and believers that they would be “protect[ed] as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” 7 None of this was necessary to the Court’s decision.

Similarly, when the Supreme Court ruled that LGBT persons are protected from employment discrimination under federal civil rights laws, the Court again went out of its way to assure religious organizations that the Constitution and federal law contain ample protections to secure religious liberty rights. 8

Not every U.S. court is so favorable, but if you had to pick a court to have on your side, the United States Supreme Court is not a bad one to have. Again, in many ways, these are the best of times for religious liberty in the United States.

But in other ways, these are very troubling times. The problem lies not so much in the law but in the culture. That’s a major challenge because sooner or later, where culture goes, the law will follow.

Unfortunately, our culture is becoming more hostile toward institutions generally and religious institutions specifically. On the religion front, this follows from a broad-based decline in religiosity. The Gallup Poll indicates that over the last thirty years, weekly church attendance has dropped from 34% to 20%. 9 During the same time, the number of people in the United States who lack any religious affiliation—the so-called “nones”—has risen from 9% to 29%. 10

Our culture increasingly extols rebellion against institutional authority while exalting the supremacy of the self. There is a growing desire to be free from any restriction that limits what some have referred to as the “autonomous” or “expressive self.” Berkeley sociology professor Robert Bellah coined the term “expressive individualism” to describe this notion. In his book Habits of the Heart, he wrote:

Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of  feeling and  intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized. 11

Since Western culture now sees the realization of individuality as life’s primary purpose, the modern moral imperative is to liberate the self from any constraint. Thus, anything that appears to suppress or limit the expression of individuality constitutes an injustice. Such constraints must be exposed and deconstructed as manifestations of arbitrary power and then swept away, so the individual is free to “find” himself.

Historically, “the meaning of one's life” derived largely from family relationships. Faith, church, school, profession, and nation supplied other powerful sources of meaning that shaped and defined the individual. But a major change in how we find and define ourselves has occurred. Now, “the meaning of one's life for most Americans,” Professor Bellah explains, “is to become one's own person, almost to give birth to oneself. Much of this process . . . is negative. It involves breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” 12 And, I would add, often it involves breaking free from one’s belief in God, from one’s faith community, and from the truths and moral precepts one receives from those profound sources of meaning. “In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right or wrong, good or evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide,” Professor Bellah says. 13

Other academics, such as Professor Charles Taylor of McGill University, have described this same phenomenon in different terms. 14 Whatever the label for this cluster of ideas—expressive individualism, culture of authenticity, the “unencumbered self,” 15 “libertarianism“—these ideas now exert an enormous influence on how we conceive of ourselves and how we react to anything that appears to limit our aspirations, passions, and behaviors. Just think of the slogans we constantly encounter: “Be true to yourself!” “Follow your heart!” “Follow your dreams!” “Live your truth.” “Find yourself.” “You do you!”

Many of these assertions would have been odd if not incoherent in earlier times. Clearly, we are now in a very different culture than the one that produced, for example, the Scout Oath, which speaks of honor, duty to God and country, obedience, law, sacrifice, and moral rigor.

Hence, we shouldn’t be surprised by the growing suspicion toward institutions at every level—and especially toward the family and religious organizations, which by their nature challenge the conceit that we can define ourselves anyway we like. Ironically, many who seek to liberate themselves from traditional sources of meaning are now rigidly defining themselves and others according to racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, class, and other characteristics. These identities, not faith and family, are allegedly most fundamental, with religion often portrayed as merely a private hobby rather than a core, defining element of a person’s very existence.

Obviously, much of this current ideology is irreconcilable with the doctrine of Christ and the call to Christian discipleship. At the outset of the Restoration, the Lord rebuked a modern world that had “strayed from mine ordinances” and “broken mine everlasting covenant.” “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness,” He said, “but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world.” (D&C 1:15-16.) Sound familiar? Modern philosophy in effect asserts that each person should be a god unto himself or herself—one that is free from all external sources of moral authority.

By contrast, Jesus Christ invites us to follow Him and thereby find our highest and best selves. And so the Lord gave us commandments and covenants, precepts and principles, prophets and pastors, to help define us as a peculiar people—as His people—and to guide us back into His eternal presence. Those sources of personal and collective identity sharply differ from the self-centered ethos we hear constantly from elite and popular culture.

That culture, sooner or later, will produce laws and regulations, judges and bureaucrats, that are hostile toward a Church of divine identities, covenants, and prophetic leaders.

So while these are indeed among the best of times for religious liberty legally, the state of our culture means that serious challenges assuredly lie ahead.

What the Church and its Members Need to Freely Practice Their Religion

To meet those challenges, we must understand clearly what the Church and our members need to freely practice our faith and fulfill our divine mission. Since we can’t have perfect liberty, the liberties we most diligently seek should correspond with the liberties we most urgently need. 

So what do we need as the Lord’s covenant people? Here, we must ultimately look to inspired leaders to guide us. But I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts based on my observations over the last three decades. In short, I see at least three vitally important zones of religious freedom that the Church and its members need and thus must advocate for and defend.

First, as Church members we must be free to believe, live, and express our faith in our private and family spaces. Religious freedom cannot exist without the “privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” (AoF 11) This includes the freedom to embrace and live the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and to transmit our faith to our children. That means mothers and fathers must be able to inculcate in their children the doctrine of Christ—all of it, including revealed truths about marriage, family, gender, and sexuality. It means that parents must have a say in their children’s education. While most nations with Western-based legal systems respect this basic zone of individual and family autonomy, there is growing pressure to shrink that zone to ensure that faith and family do not interfere with hardening social orthodoxies.

Second, as Church members we must be free to express our faith and live the gospel openly as equal citizens. We live not only in the intimate spaces of family, friends, and fellow Church members but also in wider communities, societies, and ultimately nations. We have jobs and professions. We participate in community, educational, artistic, and recreational organizations. We have talents, expertise, opinions, and experiences to share. We have the truth of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we live in societies that desperately need it! 

Church members have a basic need and moral right to participate in and contribute to the social, civic, and professional lives of the societies where we live. Put more starkly, we have a moral right not to be treated as second-class citizens, social pariahs, or outcasts—such as by being excluded from professions, the academy, or public office.

Third, as Latter-day Saints—as a people—we have a need and a divine mandate to gather—to be of one heart and one mind and dwell together in righteousness, as the Lord said of Zion. 16 Indeed, one of the greatest tasks in defending religious liberty is to ensure that we have sufficient freedom to gather together and establish Zion—to become a Zion people—and to invite everyone of good will to join us. Elder David A. Bednar has warned that “if the faithful are not gathering, sooner or later they will begin to scatter. [B]ecause gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom.” 17

As noted, the call to gather has been a constant theme since the outset of the Restoration. That imperative is greater now than ever, and there are many dimensions to it. President Russell M. Nelson has called the gathering of Israel “the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on earth.” 18 God’s work of salvation and exaltation on both sides of the veil includes a massive, coordinated effort to take the gospel—including temple ordinances—to the ends of the earth. All this requires a peculiar people—the covenant people of God.

As modern covenant Israel, we are not just an accumulation of individuals who happen to come together for Church meetings and activities. By virtue of the gathering, we are no longer “strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19) We are to be covenantally gathered and bound to the Lord and to each other. The gathering entails the forging of a people prepared to meet the Lord at His coming. This is the vision of Zion.

Joseph Smith taught:

The building up of Zion is a cause that has interested the people of God in every age; it is a theme upon which prophets, priests and kings have dwelt with peculiar delight; they have looked forward with joyful anticipation to the day in which we live . . . we are the favored people that God has made choice of to bring about the Latter-day glory.” 19

I am convinced that gathering together to build Zion—especially in the stakes of Zion—is not just a millennial hope or some far-off possibility. I believe it is essential to our very survival. The Lord revealed “that the gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, [is] for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth”. 20

What is at stake is nothing less than our very identity. One of the most daunting challenges we face as Latter-day Saints is that worldly philosophies increasingly intrude upon every aspect of our consciousness. The modern world is saturated with ideologies that are hostile to faith. Through technology and media, they permeate our language and influence how we perceive the world around us and even our very selves. If we are not vigilant in centering our lives on Christ and “thinking celestial,” as President Nelson has taught, little by little the world will strip us of our identity and make our faith, beliefs, covenants, and even how we speak seem incoherent to our world-soaked minds. “It is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come,” said people in the Book of Mormon despite having seen many signs and wonders. 21 The power and threat of an unchecked culture of disbelief is that the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ—including who we are—can come to seem unreasonable, even to those who know better.

That is why we need Zion. Zion is a refuge from the storm of ffaithlessness. It is a shelter from the spiritual and moral chaos of our time. It is a place and a space where we can gather, unite, and be who we are—where the truths we cherish, the standards we live, the practices and patterns that define our lives, and the very gospel language we speak are natural and well understood. It is where we define the narrative, not the world. It is where we can live our true identities as sons and daughters of God, children of the covenant, and disciples of Jesus Christ.

We need the religious freedom to be a Zion people. We need the freedom to live in the world but also to be separate from the world in meaningful ways. In the early days of the Church, we were often quite separate, as establishing Zion meant gathering to a centralized location, eventually to Utah and other settlements in the West. Beginning in the early Twentieth Century, the Church and its members integrated more fully into American society. During much of the last century, that society tended to be supportive of Church standards.

But that has changed dramatically. Many of our basic beliefs are now in deep tension with modern culture. How do we remain a “peculiar people” when powerful forces insist that only one way of thinking and believing and living is reasonable? Does that portend a tighter-knit gathering so we can better preserve our identity and faith, even as we invite and welcome everyone to join us?

Those are hard questions, and the answers may well vary over time as new challenges and opportunities arise. But what is certain is that these are our questions to answer. We as a Church and a people need the freedom and autonomy to answer those questions on our own terms, within our own institutions, and as guided by our own leaders.

In sum, in my view there are three zones of freedom that we as Latter-days Saints especially need: freedom to live the gospel in our family and other private spaces, freedom to live our faith openly as equal citizens and participants in society, and freedom to gather as a people to build Zion.

Legal Doctrines

That brings us to my final point. There are critical legal doctrines that we must all work to uphold if these vital religious interests and needs are to be protected. We could spend hours discussing each one. I’ll touch on them very briefly tonight.

First, we must uphold the rule of law. In his April 2021 general conference address on “Defending our Divinely Inspired Constitution,” President Dallin H. Oaks identified the rule of law as one of the most fundamental protections the Constitution affords. 22 We must never take for granted the noble tradition of affording each person the right to be governed by laws established by legitimate authority and applied fairly and without bias by legitimate government officials. Indeed, the Lord Himself linked the rule of secular law with the freedom of His people to obey divine law. To the Kirtland saints He promised: “and ye shall obtain power to organize yourselves according to the laws of man; That your enemies may not have power over you; that you may be preserved in all things; that you may be enabled to keep my laws; that every bond may be broken wherewith the enemy seeketh to destroy my people.” (D&C 44:4-5.) We will not be free to live our faith if we lose the rule of law.

Second, we must uphold the principle of equality before the law and basic nondiscrimination rights. One of the greatest legal accomplishments in centuries, and a key aspect of the rule of law in any democratic society, is a legal regime that protects basic rights of equality and nondiscrimination. Tensions that may arise from the occasional abuse of nondiscrimination laws should never obscure the enormous achievement of the modern civil rights movement, which gave concrete reality to the Declaration of Independence’s lofty assertion “that all men are created equal.” Protections against unjust governmental and marketplace discrimination are a bulwark against religious persecution and efforts to turn our people into legal and social outcasts. No one should be denied the right to be a public servant, lawyer, doctor, professor, or therapist because of his or her religion.

Third, we must continue to reinvigorate First Amendment protections for the free exercise of religion. In its controversial 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 23 the Supreme Court significantly diminished protections for the free exercise of religion. For over 30 years, advocates have been whittling away at that mistaken decision. A majority of the Court now appears ready to repudiate Smith entirely if a suitable test can be found to replace it. Latter-day Saint lawyers and scholars can be part of that effort.

Fourth, we must defend the freedom of speech. As noted, free speech rights guarantee that parents can share the gospel with their children and that Church members and full-time missionaries can invite the public to hear the gospel message. They ensure we can speak up in public about our concerns, broadcast general conference, print our literature, and preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fifth, we must uphold the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. This includes a right to guide a child’s education and to opt-out of at least some kinds of offensive instruction in public schools. It includes protections for the right of parents to adopt and foster children—and to have custody of their own children—without being pre- judged as unfit based on their religious beliefs. No one argues that parents have a right to abuse or neglect their children, of course. But government shouldn’t have blanket power to simply declare religious upbringing abusive.

Sixth, we must defend the right of religious communities to organize legally. That includes the right to form a legal organization; own property; establish a bank account; build churches, temples, schools, and other religiously significant buildings; own publishing and communications entities—and to receive and save contributions for future religious uses as ecclesiastical leaders deem best.

Seventh and finally, we must defend the autonomy of religious organizations to govern their internal affairs free from outside interference. This principle protects the Church’s right to freely define its doctrine; administer its ordinances and covenants; choose its own priesthood leaders; set criteria for membership and good standing; regulate admission to Church meetinghouses, meetings and activities; and determine its curriculum and message. Church autonomy rights include the right to establish and set policies and moral codes for religious schools and eligibility for Church employment, including the temple recommend standard. These rights help ensure the freedom to gather and establish Zion under the direction of inspired priesthood leaders.

These are the rights I see as imperative to the Church and its people—and to most other faith communities. 

A few of us will have the opportunity to defend those rights directly as we represent religious organizations and people of faith. But all of us can uphold and defend the rule of law and be advocates for a robust religious liberty. At a time of widespread skepticism about the value of faith and churches, we can open our mouths and our laptops and bear witness to the immeasurable good religion does. We can be “example[s] of the believers.” (1 Tim. 4:12) To paraphrase Elder D. Todd Christofferson, because people want to protect what they believe is good, when they experience the kindness and good works of the faithful, they will want to protect religious people even if they don’t hold the same beliefs. 24 As members of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, and as people of faith, we can be those examples.


I said at the outset that in some ways these are the best of times and in others the worst of times for religious liberty. But that is not true of the Church itself. With active members stronger and more rooted in Christ than ever before, with new missions being opened and more temples being planned and built than ever before, with more human and financial resources to take the Restored Gospel to the world than ever before—and with the guidance of living prophets and apostles to lead us forward—I believe these are the very best of times for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its people.

Will there be trials and complexities? Of course. Those are a constant in our mortal experience.

But as President Nelson prophesied, “so many wonderful things are ahead. In coming days, we will see the greatest manifestations of the Savior’s power that the world has ever seen. Between now and the time He returns ‘with power and great glory,’ He will bestow countless privileges, blessings, and miracles upon the faithful.” 25

Nephi too “beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.” 26

I bear witness of the glorious future of latter-day covenant Israel and of the Church and kingdom of God. And I bear witness of Him whose Church and kingdom this is—even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May we each do all we can to uphold the sacred liberties that allow us to hasten this great work and make that glorious future a reality.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

  1. Russell M. Nelson and Wendy W. Nelson, “Hope of Israel” [worldwide youth devotional, June 3, 2018], supplement to the New Era and Ensign, 8,

  2. Between 2005 and 2019, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court adjudicated 16 cases where religious rights were directly at stake. Religious claimants won 81% of those cases—a dramatic increase from the roughly 50% average under earlier chief justices going back to 1953. See Lee Epstein and Eric A. Posner, The Roberts Court and the Transformation of Constitutional Protections for Religion 7 (SSRN-id3825759), published at 2022 Sup. Ct. Rev. 315.

  3. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 141 S. Ct. 1868 (2021).

  4. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).

  5. Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020).

  6. 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 600 U.S. 570 (2023).

  7. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644, 672, 679–80 (2015).

  8. Bostock v. Clayton Cnty., 140 S. Ct. 1731, 1753–54 (2020).

  9. See Religion: In Depth Topics A to Z, GALLUP,‌1690/Religion.a‌‌‌spx (last visited Jan. 3, 2024).

  10. Modeling the Future of Religion in America, PEW RSCH. CENTER (Sept. 13, 2022), https‌://www.pewresearch.‌org‌/religion‌/‌‌2022/09/13/‌how-u-s-religious-composition-has-‌‌changed-in-‌recent-decades/.

  11. Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 333–334.

  12. Robert N. Bellah, et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, pp._____.

  13. Id. at ____.

  14. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 475 (2007).

  15. Michael Sandel, The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self, 12 Political Theory 81, 86 (1984) (in criticizing the notion of “the unencumbered self,” Sandel writes: “No role or commitment could define me so completely that I could not understand myself without it. No project could be so essential that turning away from it would call into question the person I am.”).

  16. See Moses 7:18.

  17. Elder David A. Bednar, “And When He Came to Himself” (June 17, 2020), available at 

  18. Russell M. Nelson, “Hope of Israel” (worldwide youth devotional, June 3, 2018),

  19. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society course of study, 2007], 186.

  20. D&C 115:5–6.

  21. Helaman 16:13-18.

  22. Dallin H. Oaks, “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution (April 2021).

  23. 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

  24. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Religious Freedom—A Cherished Heritage to Defend, June 26, 2016, available at 

  25. Russell M. Nelson, “Overcome the World and Find Rest” (October 2022) (quoting Matt 1:36) (emphasis in original).

  26. 1 Nephi 14:14 (emphasis added).