CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — President Dallin H. Oaks called on religious leaders and organizations to come together and seek peaceful resolution to the “painful conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination” in a historic address offered from the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday.
“Let us unite with those who advocate nondiscrimination to seek a culture and laws that respect the rights of all to the equal protection of the law and the right to the free exercise of religion,” said President Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In doing so, he added, Latter-day Saints must not allow fears about losing religious freedoms make them insensitive to others’ claims for freedoms.
Offering the Joseph Smith Lecture at the University of Virginia on Nov. 12, President Oaks addressed the topic, “Going Forward with Religious Freedom and Nondiscrimination.”
“From the experience of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I believe we can proceed toward this goal by mutual respect and willing accommodation,” he said. “The right relationship between religious freedom and nondiscrimination is best achieved by respecting each other enough to negotiate in good faith and by caring for each other enough that the freedom and protection we seek is not for ourselves alone.”
A way to resolve differences
Because of his love for the United States and its Constitution, President Oaks said he is distressed at the way the nation is handling divisive issues.
“We have always had to work through serious political conflicts, but today too many approach that task as if their preferred outcome must entirely prevail over all others, even in our pluralistic society,” he said. “We need to work for a better way — a way to resolve differences without compromising core values. We need to live together in peace and mutual respect, within our defined constitutional rights.”
President Oaks said the title of his remarks acknowledges that society is still “painfully unsettled in managing the relationship between religious freedom and nondiscrimination,” but also expresses his belief that it need not remain so.
“My goal is to suggest a helpful and feasible path forward without excessively accommodating either the left or the right or the religious or the nonreligious.”
Read more: President Oaks speaks on religious freedom, offering a ‘landmark address in a landmark location’
President Oaks began his remarks with a proposition he hopes all will share. “As a practical basis for co-existence, we should accept the reality that we are fellow citizens who need each other,” he said. “This requires us to accept some laws we dislike, and to live peacefully with some persons whose values differ from our own. Amid such inevitable differences, we should make every effort to understand the experiences and concerns of others.”
This effort can succeed only “to the extent that we acknowledge and respect each other’s highest ideals and human experiences.”
When some advocates voice insults, both sides should ignore them, he said. “Our society already has too many ugly confrontations. If we answer back, we tend to mirror the insult.”
Another basic imperative is that both sides should not seek total dominance for their own position but should seek fairness for all, he said.
“Specifically, people of faith should not contest every nondiscrimination law or policy that could possibly impinge, however insignificantly, on institutional or individual religious freedom. Likewise, proponents of nondiscrimination need not contest every religious freedom exemption from nondiscrimination laws. The goals of both sides are best served by resolving differences through mutual respect, shared understanding and good faith negotiations. And both must accept and respect the rule of law.”
President Oaks taught that when there is genuine conflict, one constitutional right should not be invoked to try to cancel another constitutional right. “Both must be balanced legally and negotiated politically in a way that upholds essential rights to the greatest extent possible.”
In doing so, people of faith should not assume that those who advocate nondiscrimination have no regard for religious freedom or that nondiscrimination lacks any constitutional basis, he said. Similarly, those who advocate nondiscrimination should not assume that those asserting claims of religious freedom are seeking a license to discriminate. “There are worthy constitutional and ethical arguments on both sides of such disputes, and, so far as possible, we should seek to accommodate them consistent with the most important interests of all sides.”
Both should also be wary of the idea that one set of rights automatically trumps another in all circumstances, he said. “Both religious freedom and nondiscrimination are important values that are powerfully protected by law.”
Nondiscrimination principles have been given increasing social recognition in the last century and are now rooted in the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law, he explained. However, they still cannot remove the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
President Oaks said the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights singles out the free exercise of religion for specific protection, along with the related freedoms of speech, press and assembly. These rights “are rights on which all other rights depend,” he said. “Protecting them is essential to safeguarding and perpetuating all constitutional freedoms.”
But even though the First Amendment obviously guarantees the right to exercise or practice religious beliefs and affiliations, that right is not absolute, President Oaks explained. “As advocates for religious freedom, we must yield to the fact that in a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs or disbeliefs, the government must sometimes limit the right of some to act upon their beliefs when it is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of all.”
President Oaks also invited nondiscrimination advocates to recognize the reality of “the threat to religious freedom that is currently associated with expanding nondiscrimination laws.”
Good faith negotiation
President Oaks said it is timely to ask how to resolve urgent conflicts between the wide-spread support for nondiscrimination and the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion. “We all know that the courts are intended to have the final word on constitutional issues,” he said, cautioning “against primary reliance on judicial rulings to ultimately resolve these conflicts.”
He added: “What is needed is wise public policy, not a declaration of the winner in a legal contest.”
Litigation should not be the first recourse in resolving differences, he said. “Courts are constitutionally limited to resolving the specific cases before them. They are ill-suited to the overarching, complex and comprehensive policy-making that is required in a circumstance like the current conflict between two great values.”
Successful negotiation requires that neither side be unduly influenced by the extreme voices that often drive litigation, he said. “Extreme voices influence popular opinion, but they polarize and sow resentment as they seek to dominate their opponents and achieve absolute victory.”
President Oaks said “good faith negotiation invites that seldom-appreciated virtue so necessary to democracy: tolerance, free of bigotry toward those whose opinions or practices differ from our own.”
However, learning to live with significant differences requires much more than tolerance, he said. “Obviously, followers of Christ also have a duty to seek harmony. Where there are conflicts, all should seek peace.”
Seeking harmony by finding practical solutions to differences does not require any compromise of core principles, said President Oaks. “Both religious and secular rule are ordained of God for the good of His children.”
The religious duty to obey the law of the land and to live peaceably with all people does not contemplate that the religious will abandon the public square, he added. “In a free society like ours, all are lawfully privileged and morally obligated to exert their best political efforts to argue for what they think is most desirable.”
For example, he said, the Church exercised its constitutional right to express its position that the traditional legal definition of marriage should be preserved. But in 2015, when the Supreme Court pronounced the legality of same-sex marriage, the Church immediately ceased all such opposition, and publicly acknowledged its acceptance of the constitutional law established by the nation’s highest court.
And in response to a Salt Lake City ordinance first proposed in 2009, Church leaders reached out to nondiscrimination advocates and participated in Utah negotiations over shared concerns on housing and employment. The resulting law, later called “the Utah compromise,” was enacted with the Church’s full support in 2015.
As a Church, said President Oaks, “we are committed to the free exercise of religion to allow us to practice the principles of our faith. But we are also committed to fundamental fairness and the rule of law.”
The Utah compromise, explained President Oaks, required more than political engagement. “Essential to our side was the principle of honoring both divine and mortal laws.”
Divine and human law
The experience of the Church suggests that a way can be found to reconcile divine and human law — “through patience, negotiation and mutual accommodation, without judicial fiat or other official coercion.”
President Oaks said religious leaders “must not overlook the fact that the preservation of religious freedom ultimately depends on public appreciation and support for the related First Amendment freedoms of religious conscience, association and free exercise.”
In turn, he added, “such appreciation and support depends on the value the public attaches to the positive effects of the practices and teachings in churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship.”
President Oaks said teachings based on faith in God — however defined — have always contributed to moral actions that benefit the entire nation. This will continue to be so as religious people love and serve their neighbors as an expression of their love of God.
“In this way, more than any other, the importance of religious freedom will be better understood and better protected,” he said.
This does not require an examination of doctrinal differences or even common elements of belief, said President Oaks. “All that is necessary for unity and a broad coalition to promote our common need for religious freedom is our shared conviction that God has commanded us to love one another, including our neighbors with different beliefs and cultures.”