On eve of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, Elder Cook speaks about religious freedom

Credit: IRI
Credit: IRI
Credit: IRI
Credit: IRI
Credit: IRI


One month before the world will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the completion of Magna Carta — a document that includes clauses relating to religious and civil liberty that have given it enduring fame — Elder Quentin L. Cook offered the Religious Liberty Lecture at Notre Dame Sydney School of Law on May 27.

“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,” said Elder Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “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 work together to improve the moral fabric of our respective nations and protect religious freedom.”

During the address, offered as the result of an invitation from the law school, Elder Cook began his remarks talking about the Magna Carta and religious freedom.

Magna Carta, concluded June 19, 1215, has a rather insignificant genesis, but is profound in terms of its influence on the laws of historical British Commonwealth countries, including Australia, as well as the American Constitution, said Elder Cook.

“It was initially a treaty to end a civil war,” he said. “The crucial meetings were held at Runnymede, a meadow along the River Thames outside London, which has been described as an ‘ancient assembly site.’ ”

Elder Cook first visited the commemoration site in June 1962, as a young missionary for the Church. “The beauty of the location and the significance of the Magna Carta itself made a strong impression on me. It was one of the reasons I decided to pursue law as a profession.”

He quoted Clause 1 of the document: “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.”

With that beginning, the Magna Carta served as an important precursor to the broad protections of religious freedom that came to fruition centuries later in liberal democracies descending from the British Empire, he explained. “Today, the spirit of the Magna Carta lives on in the religious freedoms Australia and the United States secure to churches, religious organizations and individual believers.” The seeds of parliamentary government were also planted by Magna Carta.

Quoting Philip Buckler, dean of Lincoln Cathedral — home to one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta — Elder Cook said the “Magna Carta speaks to what lies at the heart of our values.”

In addition to the Magna Carta both Australia and the United States are the beneficiaries of the concepts and principles established by English Common Law. Edward Coke who produced the consolidation of English law in written form seized upon Magna Carta “… as the embodiment of good law,” he said. In the American colonies the Magna Carta was drawn on heavily in both the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment to the American Constitution. In Australia both the common law and international human rights treaties have been important.

“Natural law or even a belief that we are accountable to God is not in fashion in much of the legal world today,” Elder Cook said. “But the recognition that individual rights are part of the design of a loving Creator is part of both Catholic and Latter-day Saint theology.”

People of faith must be at the forefront in protecting religious freedom, Elder Cook said. “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.”

Many of the founding fathers in the United States were committed to religious freedom. James Madison favored having many religions. Elder Cook said, “My plea today is that all religions 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.”

Elder Cook said the two most important religious priorities in today’s world and in Australia are:

“First, protect each church and its right to teach and function according to its doctrine and beliefs. This includes the freedom of a church to form a legal entity, to own property including schools and hospitals, etc., establish its doctrine, govern its ecclesiastical affairs, set requirements for church membership, conduct worship, and administer its sacraments and ordinances according to its doctrine.

“Second, is the ‘freedom to believe’ according to the dictates of one’s own conscience without fear of governmental or private retaliation. This includes the basic premise of democracy that no one should be punished based on the religious beliefs that he or she holds. Each family must have the right to worship and conduct religious activities within the home. In addition, each church member must be protected in employment, public office and the public square. No person should be disqualified from participation in national life because of their religious beliefs.”

Elder Cook addressed Australia and religious freedom.

“I do not pretend to be an expert on Australian law and express appreciation for lawyers in both the United States and here in Australia who have assisted me in this area,” he said. “While no country is perfect and every country faces challenges, I’m pleased to say that to a very significant degree all these vital safeguards for religion are woven into the fabric of Australian law and society.”

But as with all societies that value religious freedom, the protections Australia affords to religious exercise are not perfect or immune from attack, he said. “Safeguarding religious liberty requires constant vigilance.”

Before concluding, Elder Cook expressed his appreciation for his personal relationship with Catholic leaders in the United States and in other parts of the world. “We have recognized that neither of our religions can compromise the essentials of our faith. We each strongly maintain adherence to our respective Christian doctrine, but have worked together on faith, family and religious freedom.”

He said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is trying to do its part to help ensure that freedom of religion remains a vibrant part of Australia’s heritage.

“The Church and its members have been active in organizing and supporting events that promote better understanding of religion and religious liberty.”

There are numerous other endeavours, both internationally and in Australia, where people of faith working cooperatively can strengthen religious liberty. “But most importantly, people of faith must demonstrate each day by their good works that religious freedom benefits everyone, both believer and non-believer.” @SJW_ChurchNews

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