LDS lawyer fights for religious rights of others

Church member chairs national commission

For as long as Michael K. Young can remember, he wanted to study law. He wanted to solve problems. He wanted to help shape society.

Michael Young,chairman of U.S. Commission Religious Freedom
Michael Young,chairman of U.S. Commission Religious Freedom

"You can do an enormous amount of good by structuring the social order of things," explained the dean of the George Washington University Law School.

Now the member of the McLean 1st Ward, McLean Virginia Stake, will have that opportunity as never before.

In September he was elected chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The commission was created in 1999 by Congress to give independent recommendations about religious freedom issues worldwide. The nine-member commission has the responsibility to advise the White House, State Department and Congress on the ways in which the United States can advance religious liberties and fight religious persecution.

Brother Young said his LDS background and professional experience fueled his passion for the work.

A returned missionary who served in Japan, Brother Young was the Fuyo Professor of Japanese Law and Legal Institutions at the School of Law of Columbia University before joining George Washington Law School. He also served as director of the Center for Japanese Legal Studies, the Center for Korean Legal Studies and the Project on Religion, Rights and Religious Freedom at Columbia.

During the administration of former President George Bush, he served as ambassador for trade and environmental affairs, deputy under secretary for economic and agricultural affairs, and deputy legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State.

Brother Young said his membership in the Church, in which he has served as a stake president and is now a high councilor, has helped his professional life in two important ways.

First, he said, it has given him perspective.

"I have loved every job I have ever had. But at the end of the day what really matters to me is my family and the Church," he said.

After graduating from BYU in 1973 and Harvard Law School in 1976, he served as a law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court.

One night after work Brother Young started playing ball with his 18-month-old son. "We were rolling that ball back and forth on the floor. It dawned on him that this was a game. I realized that however great my job was, that in the entire month I hadn't had as much fun at my job as I was having with my son. The Church gives you perspective; it helps you put first things first."

Second, he said, the Church gives its members values and goals that shape their professional activities.

"There are enormous numbers of opportunities at a lot of different levels to make a difference," he said. "You can make a difference in yourself, in your neighborhood, in your community, in your country, in the world. The key is do the best you can do, and to do it honorably, consistent with Church values."

He encouraged all Church members to look for opportunities to use their skills to make a difference — just as he hopes to do as chairman of the religious freedom commission.

As he looks across the world, he thinks about human rights. He thinks of the millions of people who suffer every day simply because they choose to worship their God. He thinks about people who want to change their religious beliefs.

He also doesn't forget Church history and the early members who died for his religion. Like him, many members of the commission belong to religions that, historically, have been persecuted.

"In many ways that is among our first concerns," he said. "[We are concerned] about people who are being killed and put in prison because of their beliefs."

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