The following is Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2 will be on religious liberty at the core of what it means to be human. Part 3 will feature an interview with President Dallin H. Oaks.
ROME, Italy — As a young law professor at Stanford University, G. Marcus Cole picked up a newspaper and noticed a photograph of a group of nuns — in habits — on the front page. He hadn’t seen Catholic nuns in habits since he was young; his interest was piqued.
The nuns had been approached by a group of young women who wanted to join their order, and they didn’t have enough room in their convent. So they hired an architect to draw up plans for an expansion of the convent, and they submitted those plans to the San Mateo County (California) Board of Supervisors.
“When San Mateo County looked at the architect’s plans, their response wasn’t to approve or disapprove the expansion of the convent,” recalled Cole. “Their response was, ‘This space, this land, is too valuable to be wasted on prayer.’ ”
The county purchased the land by eminent domain and turned it over to a developer.
Cole was outraged.
“If you haven’t thought seriously about religious freedom, or if you wonder why it’s important, let me encourage you to think about where would the absence of religious freedom lead society?” — President Dallin H. Oaks
He tried to find someone to help them, but could not. “I was a business lawyer. I didn’t think that I was equipped to be able to either identify religious liberty issues or to work on them.”
Still, the story stuck with him. And when he became dean of University of Notre Dame Law School he committed himself to the protection of religious liberty for all.
It is his passion.
“I’m not a constitutional scholar. I’m not a First Amendment scholar. I’m passionate about it because I am simply a person of faith. I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I believe that He has put me here for a reason. And maybe part of that reason is to help make the world safe for other people to embrace Him as well.”
Preserve religious freedom
Cole and other faith leaders gathered for the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome, Italy, in July to discuss the need to preserve, protect, restore and defend religious freedom in the United States and around the world.
“If you haven’t thought seriously about religious freedom, or if you wonder why it’s important, let me encourage you to think about where would the absence of religious freedom lead society?” said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Consider where society would be, where our lives would be, where our religion would be, if we did not have religious freedom. If we didn’t have religious freedom we would not have the right to choose what to believe, the right to choose what to act upon, the right to choose what to do because of your beliefs.
“Where would the absence of those rights lead? Think of that.”
Religious freedom worldwide
President Oaks offered a keynote address during the summit, calling for “a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”
In an interview before giving his address, President Oaks said, “The most effective representation of religious liberty is a representation that stands up for people of faith or no faith. Religious freedom is not just the right to believe, it’s the right to carry our beliefs into action. And it’s also the right to meet together to have organizations that teach and advocate the religious principles that benefit society as a whole.”
President Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, was honored in 2013 by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty with the organization’s Canterbury Medal for “courage in the defense of religious liberty.”
During a Church News interview, Cole called President Oaks’ speech magnificent.
“Part of what he communicated was that the time for focusing on doctrinal differences between denominations is gone,” Cole said.
“We have to recognize that we all have a unity of spirit when it comes to the threats to religious freedom, and that doctrinal differences can’t matter when it comes to opposing that threat, because it threatens all of us. And it threatens not just our freedom of religion, but it threatens every freedom that we hold dear.”
Freedom of religion is foundational — even for those who are not people of faith, Cole said. “One of the first things we have to do is decouple freedom of religion from the culture wars,” he said. “We have to explain to people why it’s essential to our everyday existence in our everyday life.”
Religious liberty is the foundation of all freedoms, he continued. “But unfortunately, we are not making the connection, at least in American society, between freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion,” he said. “Freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, is required for us to be able to enjoy the other freedoms that we have.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed how vulnerable faith and people of faith are, as faith groups were targeted for discriminatory regulation, he said. “People of faith are particularly vulnerable in a crisis, precisely because there are large segments of the population that don’t appreciate the role that faith plays in our public life.”
The first human right
Nury Turkel, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said speaking out against religious persecution, “taking actions to protect religious liberties, here at home and around the world,” is consistent with the values of the United States of America.
Religious freedom is the first human right for the American people, he noted.
“Caring about religious freedom, speaking out against religious repression, and forcing and pressuring our government officials to do the right thing makes us American. This is what we do.”
When people are left alone to practice their religion, it creates a “harmonious society, peaceful society, tolerant society,” he said.
Turkel said he was moved by President Oaks’ message, calling for global efforts “to defend and advance” religious freedom. The message resonated with many and needs to be repeated, he said. “Religious freedom is so dear and near to a lot of people,” he said, noting that those who have been subject to religious persecution, need to learn about the experiences of other people as well.
A global issue
Thomas B. Griffith, a former federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a Latter-day Saint, emphasized that religious liberty is a global issue. “Religious liberty is a concept that is fragile in the best of circumstances, and we are not in the best of circumstances.”
Referencing President Oaks’ call for global religious liberty, Griffith said, “If one looks at the metrics for how to determine whether religious liberty is healthy or not healthy around the world, it is not healthy.”
There are few issues to people of faith that should be more important than religious liberty, he continued. “We Americans may not be aware of just how tenuous a liberty this is, and how it needs to be defended by people of faith, by people of no faith. It’s a matter of conscience; it’s a matter of freedom of thought.”