Elder Oaks: ‘Concerns and counsel’ regarding religious freedom

The ‘hard work of citizenship’: Becoming informed and involved in the religious freedom discussion.

COLLEYVILLE, TEXAS

In an effort to help Latter-day Saints navigate the topic of “religious freedom,” the Church launched a new website — religiousfreedom.lds.org — on Sept. 10.

The website, announced during the Regional Religious Freedom Conference held in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area, provides examples and helps for people to understand what religious freedom is and how they can defend their religious beliefs in a kind and civil way.

“Everyone, from kindergarten children through the ranks of professionals and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors, can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared during the event.

A “paramount motive” for the conference, he said, was to get members involved in a constructive way in the “vital contest for religious freedom.”

Originating in the Colleyville Texas Stake Center, the conference drew together Latter-day Saints from 25 stakes— in person and via broadcast.

“This special conference — the first of its kind — will focus on religious freedom and what you, as members, can do to help defend it,” said Elder Von G. Keetch, General Authority Seventy, in his welcoming remarks.

The two-hour evening event included a keynote address from Elder Oaks, as well as a talk by Elder Lance B. Wickman, emeritus General Authority Seventy and general counsel and chief legal advisor for the Church. Elder Keetch conducted the event, Alexander Dushku, a partner at the law firm Kirton McConkie, gave a presentation on becoming informed about religious freedom issues and Matthew Richards, a partner at Kirton McConkie, provided practical advice. In the final presentation, Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, provided ways to be effective advocates for religious freedom (Please see report on page 10).

Elder Oaks explained why members of the Church should be committed to maintaining the free exercise of religion and why all citizens of the nation should be supportive of this effort.

“That support is urgently needed at a time when powerful forces — political and social — are seeking to dilute or replace it with other rights or priorities,” said Elder Oaks, a former attorney and law professor who was serving as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court at the time he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1984.

Elder Oaks said not many people can be elected to public office, plan the strategy or author the key arguments to be used in this contest or go to law school or seek a degree in political science to serve the cause of religious freedom. But everyone can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important, he declared.

Referring to the conference’s theme, “Fairness for all, including people of faith,” Elder Oaks explained that this does not imply a compromising of beliefs or doctrine.

“The media furthered that misunderstanding by labeling a recent fairness effort in the Utah Legislature as the ‘Utah Compromise,’ ” he said. “We deny any intent to compromise our doctrine or religious belief or to invite any others to compromise theirs. We are here to talk about how to preserve religious freedom while living with the differences that exist in our society, among friends and neighbors, and even within our families. We are also here to consider how to explain our goals and efforts without encouraging the misunderstandings that detract from our common desires to live in an atmosphere of goodwill and peace.”

Elder Oaks said followers of Christ should be examples of civility and should love all people, be good listeners and show concern for sincere beliefs. Communication regarding controversial topics should not be contentious.

“Most of us want effective ways to resolve differences without anger and with mutual understanding and accommodation,” he said. “We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails. We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to epithets, boycotts, firings and other intimidation of one’s adversaries. We need to promote and practice the virtue of civility.”

Elder Oaks said Latter-day Saints are committed to the free exercise of religion because “the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation is only possible under the free exercise of religion guaranteed in our God-inspired Constitution. Thus, for us, the free exercise of religion is not just a basic and cherished principle of our Constitution. It is essential to God’s plan of salvation. …

“We maintain that all citizens should be supportive of religious freedom because religion is uniquely valuable to society. Persons of faith therefore maintain that religious freedom is not just a concern of religious persons,” Elder Oaks said.

Elder Oaks shared an illustrative list of eight points on how churches, synagogues, mosques and other organizations contribute to society:

1. “A ‘core value’ of Western Civilization is the concept of inherent human dignity and worth.” Based on religious belief, this concept is fundamental to the protection of human life and “to the pursuit of all that is good for humanity.”

2. The robust private sector of charitable works in the United States — including education, hospitals, care for the poor and other charities — originated with and is still supported most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses.

3. Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles.

4. “Society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior.

5. “Along with their private counterparts, religious organizations serve as mediating institutions to shape and temper the encroaching power of government on individuals and private organizations.”

6. “Religion inspires many believers to serve others, which, in total, confers enormous benefits on communities and countries.”

7. “Religion strengthens the social fabric of society.”

8. “ ‘Religion is the foundation of democracy and prosperity,’ ” (Clayton M. Christensen).

Elder Oaks said, “We maintain that political realities and the religious values and actions of believers are so interlinked in the perpetuation of our society that we cannot lose the influence of religion in our public life without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms and our prosperity.”

Elder Oaks said powerful forces are seeking to weaken the free exercise of religion by diluting or replacing the First Amendment guarantee with other rights or priorities. “With the diminishing of public esteem for religion, the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening. Religion is surely under siege by the forces of political correctness that seek its replacement by other priorities.”

Elder Oaks said some public policy advocates “have attempted to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making laws in our democracy.”

“We should all understand that if one voice can be stilled, every other voice is potentially at risk of being silenced by a new majority that finds others’ arguments too ‘bigoted’ or ‘hateful’ for the public square.”

Further, Elder Oaks said, “Our main message is that we should all cease fire in the culture wars and join in efforts to achieve fairness for all. In our pluralistic society, all must learn to live peacefully with laws, institutions, and persons who do not share our most basic values,.

Respect and tolerance for the opinion and actions of others is only one side of a two-sided coin; the other side is what is true, Elder Oaks said.

The first step, Elder Oaks said, is to try to understand the other side’s point of view.

“We should encourage all to refrain from the common practice of labeling adversaries with such epithets as ‘godless’ or ‘bigot,’” he said. “This kind of name-calling chills free speech by seeking to impose personal, social or professional punishments on the speech or positions of adversaries.”

“As the powerful emerging right of non-discrimination has been accommodated in the law, many rank it above the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, contending that religious freedom must be curtailed wherever it conflicts with non-discrimination. To such I say please respect the laws that provide unique protections for believers and religious institutions,” Elder Oaks said.

The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights was established to give favored constitutional treatment to religion, speech, press and assembly. The weakening of any part of the First Amendment weakens it all, Elder Oaks noted.

“The First Amendment framers’ guarantee of ‘free exercise of religion’ rather than just ‘freedom of conscience’ shows an intent to extend its unique protections to actions in accordance with religious belief.”

Elder Oaks offered a “practical suggestion” that in the pursuit of fairness for all, it is not in litigation but in accommodation and negotiation that competing points of view are able to find common ground.

“Courts are limited to resolving the specific cases before them,” he explained. “They are ill-suited to the overall, complex, and comprehensive rule-making that is required in a circumstance like this contest between two great forces, non-discrimination and religious freedom.”

[email protected] @marianne_holman