CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Hours before giving an important address on religious freedom, President Dallin H. Oaks stood just outside the Rotunda Building on University of Virginia’s historic campus — founded more than two centuries ago by Thomas Jefferson.
He spoke of his personal and professional esteem for this place, and turned his thoughts to Jefferson and the provisions of the United States Constitution that guarantee liberties, specifically those of religion, speech, press and assembly.
“I am thrilled to be at the University of Virginia,” said the first counselor in the First Presidency.
The campus proved to be an appropriate location for an important discussion on religious liberty later that night. Offering the Joseph Smith Lecture at the University of Virginia on Nov. 12, President Oaks said that society is still “painfully unsettled in managing the relationship between religious freedom and nondiscrimination.”
“The subject of my lecture is ‘Going Forward with Religious Freedom and Nondiscrimination,’” said President Oaks. “Those are two great ideals that have been seen as entirely competitive, with many of their proponents saying, ‘We have got to prevail entirely.’ That is an idea, which in our judgment as leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not move us forward in living together in peace and mutual respect.”
Instead, the respective groups should avoid opposition to one another and seek common ground, “where we can be fellow citizens under the inspired Constitution of the United States.”
President Oaks’ lecture Friday evening in the Dome Room of the Rotunda proved to be “a landmark address given in a landmark location,″ said Richard E. Turley Jr., former assistant Church historian and recorder and President Oaks’ biographer. “It was a talk that addressed constitutional issues in a building that was designed by Thomas Jefferson.”
Read more: President Oaks calls for a ‘peaceful resolution’ to the conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination
Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Rotunda is the heart of the University of Virginia and was designed to house the university’s library, according to the university’s website.
Thomas Griffith, a former federal judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said the venue for President Oaks’ address was significant.
“Thomas Jefferson wrote the words that are the driving force of the American experience: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people (all men) are created equal,’” said Griffith. “That’s what this project is about — creating a society where there’s equality of opportunity, equal protection with law.”
Kathleen Flake, the chair of Mormon studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia who invited President Oaks to the university, said his talk lived up to the highest mission of the university — “to teach both matters and character and citizenship.”
Discussions about religious liberty are important now because “our democracy is fragmenting,” it’s weakened by a kind of “corrosive antagonism,” she said.
Doug Laycock, a professor in the University of Virginia School of Law, called President Oaks’ statements historic. “A conservative Church coming out strongly from its top leadership to recognize nondiscrimination laws and ask for exemptions only when you have to” is a tremendously important statement, he said.
Nathan Oman, a professor of law at William & Mary, said he was struck by President Oaks’ strong statements “in favor of political compromise and legislative solutions rather than looking to the courts and looking to litigation to solve” the divisiveness between those advocating for religious freedom and nondiscrimination.
Richard Bushman, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University with a chair of Mormon studies named in his honor at the University of Virginia, agreed. The heart of President Oaks’ message was the recommendation that reconciliation should not occur in the courts, “but in the political process.”
Tim Schultz, president of 1st Amendment Partnership, an organization promoting religious freedom issues, said he hopes the speech is disseminated far and wide — because it was an overview, with a lot of wisdom, on how to approach “the clash between religious and LGBTQ rights.”
This was the first time President Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, had visited Charlottesville.