Protecting Religious Liberty in a Rapidly Evolving Society

In her address at Inner Temple, London, the President of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints underscores the importance of defending religious liberty while seeking common ground. Drawing from her legal background and the Relief Society's mission, she highlights the organization's role in providing both temporal and spiritual relief globally. Emphasizing principles of political neutrality, humanitarian aid, and collaboration, she advocates for the universal application of compassion and service, promoting unity and integrity amidst the challenges of an evolving society.

I am grateful for the invitation to be here with you in London at the Inner Temple and in the shadow of Temple Church. This is a place where we are reminded of the importance of fundamental principles of the rule of law. What an appropriate setting for our discussion.

I bring the greetings and well wishes of President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who enjoyed his participation in the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome last year.

On that occasion, President Oaks emphasized that,

we must unite and find common ground for defending and promoting religious liberty. This is not a call for doctrinal compromises but rather a plea for unity and cooperation on strategy and advocacy toward our common goal of religious liberty for all. 1

I echo President Oaks’s call for seeking common ground and raising united voices on behalf of religious liberty for all people in all places.

I also bring warm regards from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, who had hoped to be with us here today. I am familiar with some of the things Elder Holland loves most, and among those are this country and the people who live here.

Personal Introduction

I am a lawyer by profession, and I have practiced primarily civil litigation in the United States for nearly 30 years. I am a wife, a mother of three sons, and a grandmother to five grandchildren. But I speak to you today in my capacity as the president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Introduction of the Relief Society

The Relief Society is one of the oldest and largest women’s organizations in the world, with more than seven million members in 188 countries. Organized in 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois, United States, at a time of extreme poverty and persecution of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Relief Society was established to provide relief, both temporal and spiritual, to the early Saints and their neighbors.

The main body of Latter-day Saints, fleeing religious persecution that included an extermination order issued by the governor of Missouri, sought refuge outside the boundaries of the United States. After a westward trek across America’s plains, the first Church members, including some of my beloved ancestors, arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Those pioneers made the desert bloom as they built homes, farms, and communities in the area which later became the state of Utah.

Picture with me women—in various degrees of deficiency and deprivation—trying to lift the burdens of other women, men, and children who were in similar degrees of scarcity and suffering. But even in those early, difficult times, pioneer accounts were filled with rejoicing in the sisterhood and joy women found in serving each other. Indeed, in providing relief, the members of the Relief Society found their own divine relief.

Speaking to a global audience in the Church’s semiannual general conference, I recently said, “Our covenantal blessing is to partner with Jesus Christ in providing relief . . . to all of God’s children. We are a conduit through which He provides relief.” As we do this, we “find our own relief in Jesus Christ.” 2

The purpose of Relief Society remains the same today as it was in pioneer times—to bring temporal and spiritual relief to women, men, and children, who we know to be our sisters and brothers, all children of God.

Members of the Relief Society exercise executive responsibility in planning, directing, and administering global humanitarian projects and in ministering to the needs of their neighbors. Relief Society members speak out, serving in government, education, and community organizations and, most importantly, in their own homes. Motivated by their faith in God and the love of God and their neighbors, members of the Relief Society care for those in need. They teach in their congregations and at home. They courageously defend morality and families. The members of the Relief Society have always “expect[ed] extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.” 3

Protecting religious liberty in a rapidly evolving society is surely an extraordinary occasion and a pressing call. 4

The Church’s Approach

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a universalist movement in the sense that we believe we have a message and a mission for all people in all places.

The Church has congregations and members who live under many types of government and who respond to a variety of legal structures that encompass religion and a life of faith. How does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints respond in a rapidly evolving society that includes autocracies? Or, to put it metaphorically and scripturally, how do we try to act as light, salt, and leaven in a world beset by so many difficulties?

Let me begin by saying a few words about light, salt, and leaven. 

Light, Salt, and Leaven

When it is darkest, even a small light can make a big difference. So we believe that the Savior’s injunction that His followers should be a light 5 applies to us, especially in times of darkness. In latter-day scripture, 3 Nephi 18:24 says, “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I [Jesus Christ] am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.”

In addition to asking followers to be a light, Jesus Christ compared His followers to salt, but with a warning. Matthew 5:13 says, “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

And in one of His shortest parables, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” 5

Salt and leaven can make a big difference in small doses, but only if they retain their distinctive character and savor.

Members of the Relief Society seek to be that light, salt, and leaven. We do so through our humanitarian efforts, including a global initiative focused on the needs of all young children and their mothers. That global initiative, in which the Relief Society takes a leading role, includes child nutrition, immunizations, maternal and newborn care, and primary education. We let our light shine globally and, like salt and leaven, seek to address the needs of those in need of relief who live in our own homes and neighborhoods.

Principles Guiding the Church’s Work That May Guide the Response of Other Religious Organizations to Autocratic Rule

I will highlight several principles that guide the Church’s work globally and that may guide the response of other religious organizations to autocratic rule:

• We believe in a universal right to “the free exercise of conscience” 6  and believe all people and institutions should be able to express publicly their views on issues facing society. 7

• The Church follows a “front-door” policy of operating in countries pursuant to law. Indeed, “honoring and sustaining the law” is one of the basic points of belief highlighted in the Church’s Articles of Faith. 8 This includes acting pursuant to law even in places where severe limits are placed on the Church’s operations.

• The Church follows a policy of political neutrality and does not involve itself in electoral politics while reserving the right to speak out on important moral issues. In June 2023 the Church issued a statement reiterating this policy, stating in part:

The Church does not seek to elect government officials, support or oppose political parties, or, generally, take sides in global conflicts. The Church is neutral in matters of politics within or between the world’s many nations, lands and peoples. However, as an institution, it reserves the right to address issues it believes have significant moral consequences or that directly affect the mission, teachings or operations of the Church. 9

• The Church’s mission of respect, care, and relief extends to all people in all circumstances regardless of their interest in the gospel, their political persuasion, or their membership in any specific faith, party, or tribe. Jesus Christ, in the New Testament, gave instructions to look after the poor. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ describes our commitment in this way:

And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need. 10

Humanitarian Work

And so The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors humanitarian service in extremely complex settings around the world, including places with autocratic rulers, failed governments, and countries controlled by factions. In these settings, like everywhere else, citizens and families are trying to do the best they can under their circumstances.

The Church’s humanitarian aim is to relieve suffering and build social cohesion through shared efforts and volunteerism. This allows for faiths, political parties, universities, and communities to work together on local priorities at whatever level is possible. Principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality guide the Church’s humanitarian work.

In 2022 the Church’s efforts to care for those in need included more than $1 billion USD in expenditures, 6.3 million volunteer hours, and 3,692 humanitarian projects in 190 countries and territories, according to the Church’s Caring for Those in Need: 2022 Annual Report. 11

The motivation for our humanitarian work is the two great commandments found in the New Testament: to “love the Lord thy God” and to “love thy neighbour as thyself.” 12 The way we love our neighbors who are very different from us is evidence that we indeed love God. This is the first and most important principle of humanitarian work.

Humanitarian efforts and missionary zeal must be kept separate. As President Dallin H. Oaks has explained:

Church humanitarian aid is intended primarily for those who are not members of [the Church]. It is distributed without any strings attached. . . . Humanitarian aid is not distributed by bishops or other local leaders, by proselyting missionaries, or through the Church’s missionary organization. . . . It is separately administered by professional workers and by specially called humanitarian [service] missionaries. 13 

Whenever possible, the Church seeks to work in collaboration with other organizations doing good work—collaborations that are both broad and deep.

For example, during the Christmas season, Light the World Giving Machines collected funds to buy food and other items for those in need in 28 different locations around the world. In 2022 alone, almost half a million individual donations totaled more than $7 million USD, and 100 percent of the proceeds were distributed, involving a network of nearly 125 local and global nonprofits. 14

In 2022 the Church donated $32 million USD to the World Food Programme and $5 million USD to UNICEF’s global nutrition program, which helps malnourished children. 15 

A portion of the Church’s humanitarian budget each year focuses on emergency relief to respond to disaster and crisis. In 2022 these relief efforts included aid to Ukrainian refugees; those affected by drought in the horn of Africa; tsunami survivors in Tonga; storm victims in Kentucky, Florida, and South Africa; and victims of civil conflict in Africa and the Middle East. 16

In addition to donating commodities and cash, the Church also sponsors volunteerism. is a free platform connecting volunteers with local opportunities. It currently operates in 14 countries, including the UK. Last year it facilitated 16,285 service projects. 17

In recent years the Church has become more sensitive to environmental stewardship initiatives:

• More than 500 of our meetinghouses worldwide now have solar panels. 18

• Deseret Industries, a network of Church-owned thrift shops, processes more than 73 million pounds of recycled goods in a year. 19

• Earlier this year, the Church donated 20,000 acre-feet of water to the Great Salt Lake in an effort to save this shrinking body of water. 20

Since its humble beginnings in 1842, the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sought “to relieve the poor” and “to save souls.” 21 Established on that foundation, the Relief Society has increased in influence and impact around the world. I express my profound appreciation to all those who join with us in providing relief to our sisters and brothers.

Wherever we are in the world, religious believers should seek to be light, salt, and leaven. We should try to pursue principles of political neutrality and take care to protect our institutional independence and integrity. In our humanitarian work, we should endeavor to be guided by principles of love, focusing on those whose needs are most profound.

  1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Pursuing Religious Liberty Worldwide,” speech at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, 20 July 2022,; see also Oaks, “Pursuing Religious Liberty Worldwide,” International Center for Law and Religion Studies 2022 Annual Report, 52

  2. Camille N. Johnson, “Jesus Christ Is Relief,” Liahona, May 2023

  3. Emma Smith, in Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 17 March 1842, 12, Joseph Smith Papers Project,

  4. The impression that democratic institutions are under incredible stress is bolstered by social science research that quantifies these pressures. For example, according to the Economist’s 2022 Democracy Index, “almost half of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort (45.3%). Only 8% reside in a ‘full democracy,’ . . . [and] more than one-third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule (36.9%)” (“Democracy Index 2022: Frontline Democracy and the Battle for Ukraine,” Economist Intelligence Unit, 2023,3, 

  5. Matthew 13:33.

  6. Doctrine and Covenants 134:2.

  7. Doctrine and Covenants 134:4 declares: “We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others.”

  8. The twelfth Article of Faith states: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

  9. “Political Neutrality and Participation,” Newsroom Topic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, updated 1 June 2023,  

  10. Alma 1:30.

  11. 12. Caring for Those in Need: 2022 Annual Report, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2023), 4, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/  

  12. Matthew 22:37, 39; Mark 12:30–31; see Luke 10:27.

  13. Dallin H. Oaks, remarks at Enterprise Mentors International dinner, 27 October 2006; quoted in R. Scott Lloyd, “People-to-People: Serving the Needy While Preserving Self- Reliance,” Church News, 11 November 2006.

  14. See “Bringing Light to the World, One Donation at a Time,” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 21 March 2023, ; see also Caring, 20–21.

  15. See Caring, 20.

  16. See Caring, 22–29.

  17. See Caring, 16.

  18. See Caring, 34.

  19. See Caring, 34.

  20. “Church Donates Water to the State of Utah to Benefit Great Salt Lake,” Utah Department of Natural Resources, 15 March 2023, 

  21. Joseph Smith, in “Minutes of the Proceedings of the Eleventh Meeting of the Society,” 9 June 1842, Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 63, Joseph Smith Papers Project,