The Importance of Religious Freedom

People of faith must be at the forefront in protecting religious freedom-a freedom from which many other essential freedoms emanate. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both the heart and the foundation of representative democracy. Freedom to believe in private and to exercise belief and speech in the public square are essential to protecting inalienable rights.

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this religious liberty conference. In preparation I have reviewed some of your national constitutions and laws. I am impressed with your accomplishments in regards to religious freedom. Guatemala and the other countries of Central America represented in this conference have a basic legal commitment to religious freedom and other civil liberties, as can be seen in your national constitutions and laws.

I am grateful for the close association we have with Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish leaders in the United States and other countries, including Central America. This friendship that allows us to work on common issues of mutual concern, even though our ecclesiastical doctrine is different in many important respects.

My purpose today is to review the progression of basic principles that have established religious liberty as part of essential or inalienable rights - the fundamental right of each individual to live according to his or her faith and beliefs. And as a corollary, to protect the religious institutions that provide the essential framework for the promulgation of faith and belief. In addition, my challenge is that people of faith, whose values are consistent with Judeo/Christian values, work together to improve the moral fabric of all nations and protect religious freedom.

 The legal heritage with respect to religious freedom in the United States echoes back to Magna Carta as early as 1215. Magna Carta served as an important precursor to the broad protections of religious freedom. It helped establish as early as 1215 that deference should be afforded to churches in the governance of their internal religious affairs.

It was initially a treaty to end a civil war, but it simply started another. In 1215 a group of barons sometimes described as "rebels" and sometimes as being "heroic," opposed King John's attempt to levy taxes to recover Normandy territory which the French had seized in 1204.1

Magna Carta is famous for clauses limiting the King's right to exact revenues without common consent and elevating individual protections under the law of the land. But the clauses relating to religious liberty and how justice was dispensed also gave Magna Carta its enduring fame.

Clause 1 is remarkable for our purposes here today. It declares: "First, We have granted to God, and confirmed by this, our present Charter, for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights in full and its liberties intact."2

Today, the spirit of Magna Carta lives on in the religious freedoms secured to churches, religious organizations, and individual believers in many countries including the United States.

 The Barons were wise enough to know that King John was unlikely to abide by the provisions set forth in the charter. Thus they included in Clause 61 a provision which established "THE COMMITTEE OF TWENTY-FIVE" to help ensure that the King would honor the charter.

This evolved to the point where by 1230 whenever a representative assembly convened, it was called a 'Parliament.'  The significance of parliaments as a means of increasing individual rights is clear.

In the American colonies Magna Carta was drawn on heavily in both the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment to the American Constitution.

That Declaration contains the seminal words "  all men are created equal,... they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."3 The acknowledgement of God, the Creator of the Universe, as the ultimate giver of essential rights is proclaimed in a magnificent fashion and clearly reflects the cherished beliefs of most people.

Natural law or even a belief that we are accountable to God is not in fashion in much of the legal world today. But the recognition that individual rights are part of the design of a loving Creator is part of both Latter-day Saint and Catholic theology and other faiths. It is not government which has the disposition and power to grant these protections and rights-they are derived from our Creator. The preamble to Magna Carta acknowledges the grace of God and the document places the king not only below God, but also below the law.4

A recent memorandum from the U.S. Office of the Attorney General, issued on October 6, 2017 is significant. Under the heading, Principles of Religious Liberty it declared that, "Religious enshrined in [the U.S.] Constitution."5 It quoted James Madison's famous words that the free exercise of religion, "is in its nature an unalienable right" because the duty owed to one's Creator, "is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society."6

People of faith must be at the forefront in protecting religious freedom-a freedom from which many other essential freedoms emanate. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both the heart and the foundation of representative democracy. Freedom to believe in private and to exercise belief and speech in the public square are essential to protecting inalienable rights.

In the American colonies, the practice of religious beliefs was a principal reason for the original settlements in New England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland (a Catholic settlement). As one scholar has noted, "More material was printed in mid-18th century America about religion than about political science, history, and law combined  "7

Interestingly, the term "free exercise of religion" first appeared in a 1648 legal document in America when a new Protestant governor and counselors in Maryland promised not to disturb other Christians, with particular emphasis on Roman Catholics, in the free exercise of their religion. This represented the first attempt in the Colonies to ensure that Protestants and Catholics could live together under circumstances of equality.8

 This early example of religious pluralism has continued in the United States, where on the whole, a multiplicity of religions have been secure in their religious rights. The U.S. has greatly benefited from religious pluralism.

We acknowledge that religious freedom has not always been protected. Both Catholics and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were persecuted in early American history even after the founding of the new nation. We also acknowledge the persecution of Jews which is without analog in history. In an International Church-State Symposium in 1998, then United States Senator Gordon Smith gave two examples of U.S. persecution. He pointed out that nativist groups were organized to supposedly "resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome and other foreign influence against the institution of [the United States] by placing in all offices... nothing but native born Protestant citizens."9 Laws were passed that clearly discriminated against Catholics. 10 Senator Smith, a devoted Latter-day Saint, noted that the same things happened with respect to his faith,  "The Mormons were anti-slavery in Missouri; .. . [they were] forced to leave Missouri under attack from serious mob violence and an 'extermination order' from the governor of the state." 11  Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was later murdered by a mob in 1844, and Church members subsequently fled westward across the Great Plains. Both Catholics and Latter-day Saints thrive in the United States today. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the United States with over 74 million members. 12 The Latter-day Saint Church is the fourth largest with somewhat less than 7 million members living in the United States and a total of 16 million worldwide.

Notwithstanding these early aberrations that resulted in persecution, many of the founding fathers in the United States were committed to religious freedom. James Madison clearly favored religious pluralism. He stated, "In a free government the security for religious rights consist in a multiplicity of sects."13

My plea is that all religions here in Central America and across the world join together to defend faith and religious freedom in a manner that protects people of diverse faith as well as those of no faith. We must not only protect our ability to profess our own religion, but also protect the right of each religion to administer its own doctrines and laws. Lord John Acton in 1862 said it this way, " … where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied. For religious liberty is not the negative right of being without any particular religion, just as self­ government is not anarchy. It is the right of religious communities to the practice of their own duties, the enjoyment of their own constitution, and the protection of the law, which equally secures to all the possession of their own independence." 14

The two most important religious priorities in today's world are:

First, individual believers should be able to worship and express faith openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism; live openly according to religious beliefs; be free from discrimination in a particular occupation or profession because of religious beliefs; and to be free from religious discrimination in employment, housing, or traditional places of public accommodation such as: hotels, restaurants and public transportation.

Second,  priority is to protect religious organizations  and their right to teach and function according to their doctrine and beliefs. This includes the freedom of a church to form a legal entity, to own and use property including schools, hospitals, educational institutions, etc., establish its doctrine, govern its ecclesiastical affairs (including employment), set requirements for church membership, conduct worship, and administer its sacraments and ordinances according to its doctrine, and to speak out on public issues.15

Religious Freedom Today

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asserts that those who want their rights protected must be willing to protect the rights of everyone else; we call this "Fairness for All."

Our doctrinal commitment to be compassionate requires us to support these basic rights and to treat everyone with civility and respect.

We must also support the religious freedom of persons and institutions of all faiths as well as those with no faith. Two basic statements which demonstrate the Church's commitment to freedom of religion for all are: First, our Eleventh Article of Faith which declares "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." The second is a wonderful statement by the Prophet Joseph Smith who passionately asserted his commitment to civil and religious liberty when he said, "...I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day  Saints would trample on the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves . It is love of liberty which inspires my soul-civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race."16 

Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and Latter-day Saints, must be part of a coalition of faiths that succor, act as a sanctuary, and promulgate religious freedom across the world. 17

After World War II the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements established the legal framework for the protection of religious freedom. It was over 69 years ago, on December 10, 1948, that the Universal Declaration was adopted. 18 That document declares that, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." 19

Notwithstanding historical foundations both in the U.S. and internationally, there is a chorus of those who do not respect accountability to God and feel perfectly comfortable in demanding that religions eliminate any doctrines that do not support their views.

This chorus of voices was lamented by an LDS apostle, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, many years ago. He said, "How can a society set priorities if there are no basic standards? Are we to make our calculations using only the arithmetic of appetite? Decrease the belief in God, and you increase the numbers of those who wish to play at being God by being 'society's supervisors.' Such 'supervisors' deny the existence of divine standards, but are very serious about imposing their own standards on society."20

My fellow apostle, President Dallin H. Oaks,21 is a champion of religious liberty. He has pointed out, "  that the weakening guarantees of the free exercise of religion are not attributable to causes that are legal, but to changes in culture. The diminished value being ascribed to religious freedom stems from the ascendency of moral relativism  Today an increasing and influential group deny or doubt the existence of a God and insist that all rules of behavior are man-made, to be accepted or rejected as one chooses because there is no such thing as right and wrong. We live in an increasingly godless and amoral society." 22

In summary, here are a few of the essential questions that are of particular significance to all people who feel accountable to God.

  • Will religious organizations continue to have the freedom to define and perform marriages solely between a man and a woman?
  • Will religious schools be permitted to have religious requirements for faculty, staff, and students?
  • Will religious believers be excluded from certain professions because of their beliefs or expressions or actions regarding sensitive social issues?
  • With the decline in religiosity generally, will religious exercise increasingly be limited to the home and places of worship, or will it continue to have a positive role to play in public life?
  • Will religion come to be seen as dangerous-as something the law must protect people from rather than as a great good for individuals, society, and the state?

These and related questions highlight some of the challenges that religious organizations and individual believers will likely confront  in the years to come.  Constant vigilance will be necessary to preserve the great treasure of religious liberty for believers and for society at large.

Fundamental Religious Freedom Principles From Our Perspective:

  1. We follow Jesus Christ's teachings and example and claim for everyone the God-given and constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience.
  2. We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice or to follow none at all, if they so choose.
  3. We believe that laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while allowing respectful coexistence of those with differing values.
  4. We reject persecution of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances, and differences in gender or sexual orientation.

Again I am impressed with the accomplishments of Guatemala and other countries of Central America in regards to religious freedom. They are enshrined in your national constitutions and laws.

Even more impressive is your cultural commitment to live peaceably with one another despite religious differences. During the past 50 years, Central America has undergone a major social change and has become quite diverse religiously. Remarkably, this change has occurred without sectarian violence or significant persecution. In this regard, Central America is a great example to other areas of the world. I pay tribute to many fine religious and civic leaders who have taught principles of human dignity, love of neighbor, and respect for differences in belief.

Of course, the work of promoting respect and preserving freedom is never finished. I recognize that you have continuing challenges. One of the most pressing is the question of how to protect freedom of religion and conscience in the face of new global trends against time-honored local values-values like strong religious beliefs, united traditional families, and parental rights to teach standards of morality, including sexual conduct, to their children. We need workable solutions that protect our freedom to live our faith and teach our values in an atmosphere of respect and fairness for all.

We need to defend religious freedom in a positive and statesman-like manner. Too many do not make their positive views known when their engagement is sorely needed.

Some are concerned they would be getting ahead of the respective leaders of their faiths. I would suggest that for people of your capability and training, engagement to defend religious liberty is essential. It can take many forms. It may be as simple as posting something in defense of your faith or the faith of your friends. Please do this on your own volition, understanding that you will not always get things exactly right. But also understanding, that the far bigger mistake would be to sit silently by. Our response should be statesman-like and respectful.

We can do a better job of teaching and educating our responsible friends of the essential value of religious liberty and its importance in protecting our shared values. The inalienable human rights enshrined in many constitutions are inalienable only insofar as these rights are bestowed by a Divine Creator. It is the accountability to a Divine Creator that is the foundation for assisting those in need, respecting fellow citizens and respecting and following the law. To the extent these human rights are merely the creation of Man, they are at risk of becoming alienable, or being removed by Man. To this end, religious liberty is foundational to all other human rights. It is in the best interest of anyone concerned with human rights, even atheists and non-believers, to protect religious liberty. We can and must do a better job of communicating our shared mutual interests.

How People of Faith Live Their Lives is Extremely Important

In addition to this counsel, those of us who feel accountable to God have a responsibility to live upright lives of service to God and our fellowmen, to obey the law, and to be good citizens, neighbors, and friends in all we do. As we do so, ordinary citizens and government officials alike will be more inclined to see the value of religion and to respect the basic principles that allow us to freely live it. There is no better demonstration of the great benefits associated with religious liberty than for devoted members of various faiths who feel accountable to God to model principles of integrity, morality, service, and love. As others see the goodness of individuals and families­ goodness that is founded in strong faith and character-they will be much more likely to speak up in defense of the religious freedoms that allow us to be who we are.

Thank you very much.

  1. Nigel Saul, "The Kingdom's First Charter," Country Life, Jan. 21, 2015, pp.54-59. This sets forth an excellent explanation of the Magna Carta and its influence on English law and the American Constitution.

  2. Ibid., p. 57. See also: MAGNA CARTA cl. I (1215), reprinted in J.C. HOLT, MAGNA CARTA 453 (2d ed. 1992) (spelling standardized; emphasis added). The Magna Carta was written in Latin and there are different translations.

  3. The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.

  4. The legal writer known as Bracton was to write in Henry 111' s reign, 'in England the king is below God and below the law'. Cited by Nigel Saul in "The Kingdom' s First Charter," Country Life, Jan. 21, 2015, 55 .

  5. Office of the Attorney General, Washington D.C; October 6, 2017, Memorandum . Subject: Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty.

  6. James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (June 20, 1785), in The Founders' Constitution (Philip B. Kurland & Ralph Lerner eds, 1987).

  7. Kevin Phillips, The Cousins' Wars, 94.

  8. Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 1999, No. 2, Senator Gordon Smith, Religious Liberty in the 21st Century. 488, citing W. Russell, Maryland: The Land of Sanctuary, 130 (2D ed. 1908).

  9. Ibid, 491-492. The Know-Nothings were organized based on this insidious notion.


  11. Ibid, 492, citing Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 44-45 (1979); Stephen C. Lesuer, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (1987).

  12. Wall Street Journal, Sat.-Sun. Jan. 3-4, 2015, AS.

  13. See James Madison, Constitutional Debates, June 12, 1788.

  14. Lord John Acton, "The Protestant Theory of Persecution," in Essays on Freedom and Power, (Gertrude Himmelfarb, ed., 1948), 90.

  15. Cook, Quentin L., Seymour Institute Seminar on Religious Freedom, Accountability to God: Religious Freedom and Fairness, July 26, 2017.

  16. Joseph Smith, Discourse in Nauvoo, Illinois (July 9, 1843), as reported by Willard Richards, in History of the Church 5:498-99.

  17. After World War II the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements established the legal framework for the protection of religious freedom. Almost 69 years ago, on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration was adopted. That document declares that, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

  18. U.N. G.A. Res.217 A (Ill), art. 18 (1948) [hereinafter Universal Declaration].

  19. U. N. G.A. Res.217 A (Ill), art. 18 (1948) [hereinafter Universal Declaration].

  20. Neal A. Maxwell, "The Prohibitive Costs of a Value-free Society," Ensign, Oct. 1978, 52-53.

  21. Dallin H. Oaks.  As a young man he served as editor of the University of Chicago Law Review. He subsequently clerked for then Chief Justice Earl Warren on the United States Supreme Court. He also served as a professor of the University of Chicago Law School, president of Brigham Young University, and a justice on the Utah State Supreme Court. He was called as an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1984, and as first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, Jan. 2018.

  22. Dallin H. Oaks, "Challenges to Religious Freedom," Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations, Apr. 23, 2015.