Church History Symposium panel: Defending religious liberty as both a Church member and citizen, and in societies around the world

When the Founding Fathers were putting together the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, religious freedom was seen somewhat as a social experiment, said W. Cole Durham Jr. during a Church History Symposium panel discussion on Friday, March 11. 

“We know a lot more now that it really works,” said Durham, an emeritus BYU law professor and the founding director of the J. Reuben Clark Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. “It really generates stability in society. … It’s a remarkable and somewhat miraculous institution [that] we need to protect.”

In addition to Durham, the panel included Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and president of Latter-day Saint Charities; former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, who served in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet and is now the president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square; and Elizabeth A. Clark, associate director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies and an expert on religious freedom in Eastern Europe and comparative law and religion. It was moderated by Gary B. Doxey, who is also an associate director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies and is the regional director for Latin America. 

Latter-day Saints and Religious Liberty: Historical and Global Perspectives” was the theme of this year’s two-day symposium, which is sponsored by the Church History Department and BYU’s Department of Church History and Doctrine. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the quest for religious freedom is in the DNA of the Latter-day Saints as part of our history, as part of who we are and part of our core doctrine as well,” said Doxey. 

The panel’s discussion was centered on “‘Anxiously Engaged in a Good Cause’: Religious Freedom at Home and Abroad” and topics ranged from challenges religious freedom faces, religion in politics to religion in Ukraine. 

People listen to the panel during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 11, 2022.
People listen to the panel during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 11, 2022. Credit: Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Religious freedom

“Religious freedom is the time-tested value in how you deal with deep differences,” Durham said. But there are times people associate religion with problems. 

“I think we need to find ways to be civil and to come together and to remind people of just how much good religion does,” he said, adding how he’s seen the correlation between protecting religious freedom and other social good. 

In addition to a reminder about how religion contributes to the well-being of society, an important reminder is also that religion can’t really serve those roles unless it can operate freely, he said. 

Clark noted that one aspect of religious freedom is that “religion touches people at the core of their identity, whether they believe it or not.” 

“Religious freedom is about opening a space for everyone to be able to have an identity about their beliefs in God or not,” Clark said. It should be available for the atheist and for the believer. 

It also includes speaking up where religious needs may be inadvertently overlooked. In places where there are fewer people of faith, those making regulations may simply not be aware of a need from a religious group, such as scheduling athletic events that may be on a group’s Sabbath day, Clark said. 

Saints and citizens 

“As Latter-day Saints, we are both Saints and citizens and often we are acting as Saints in our role as citizens. But the key role in the defense of religious freedom, isn’t our role as Saints — it’s our role as citizens,” Leavitt said. 

In being involved as a citizen, it’s also important to see past the loud voices that would create divisions.

Michael O. Leavitt, former governor and president of The Tabernacle Choir, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building.
Michael O. Leavitt, former governor and president of The Tabernacle Choir, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building. Credit: Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“Another key point here is our clear commitment to stay out of partisan politics. We deal with issues as they would affect the capacity of the Church to carry out its essential and sacred and unique mission,” Leavitt said. 

In an earlier question, Leavitt pointed out that in partisan politics, “you win by drawing extreme positions and drawing as many people as you can to those positions.” And many times those positions are centered around different values because they’re meaningful to people. This drives a wedge between people. 

Instead, look at following the Savior’s example. For example, in Utah, Church leaders, LGBTQ advocates and others worked together for an anti-discrimination religious rights bill in 2015 that aimed to balance religious freedom and protections against discrimination of LGBTQ people in the workplace and housing. 

“Our approach is to recognize that the Savior would protect all people and would not deny anyone the capacity for shelter or food or employment and would love them. And hence, we should be looking after our fellow citizens who may be LGBT,” Leavitt said. ”We can protect them as both Saints and citizens.”

If that was a partisan discussion, it would be difficult as both sides would be representing one polar view or the other. 

“When we are good Saints and good citizens, and we are representing not just our own interests but the interests of all God’s children, I think democracy will be preserved, and freedom will endure,” Leavitt said. 

Sister Eubank noted three strengths of Church members that can help with reaching out to others in working toward religious freedom. First, the structure in being able to convene at a family, congregational or community level and bring people together. Second, is that the Church is global and can share best practices from around the world. 

Third is that “it’s not a passing fad for us,” she said. It’s a core belief and “we are relentless about this issue.” 

“People have inherent rights and privileges just by being children of God and we’ll protect those,” she said. 

Around the world

Of the more than 200 countries in the world, Durham estimates in his experience that about an average 10% of them change their religious laws every year.

“It’s just that religion is so central in culture, and it’s important in politics. And so there are changes,” he said. While the Church isn’t the target of these changes, it’s affected by them. With having friends in the country, there can be ways to make a difference. 

W. Cole Durham Jr, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building.
W. Cole Durham Jr, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building. Credit: Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“You can’t change some of the overall politics, [but] often you can fix little details,” he said. 

For instance, in Chile when leaders were changing their laws and they had just about finished the change when Durham said that they noticed that the Church would have to reorganize under the new law and change the title of all of the churches. There would be a tax on each of those changes which would have totaled $1 million to $2 million in fees. 

“We pointed that out to the people drafting the laws’’ who said they would fix it, Durham said. “And they did.”

Ukraine 

With the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the headlines, Clark was asked to share some of the religious history of Ukraine. 

“There are members in Russia and in Ukraine. Our heart aches for all of them,” Clark said. 

Clark, who studied Russian in Kyiv in 1991, said that Ukraine is more religiously diverse than the countries around it. “Because of that, it’s had a deep commitment to religious freedom.” 

No one religion has been more prevalent nationally than others and many religions have had a presence there, she said. In countries where there is a national religion, that can be closely tied to nationalism and identity, making it more difficult for other religions to be established as they are seen as outsiders. 

Elizabeth A. Clark, Associate Director for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building.
Elizabeth A. Clark, Associate Director for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building. Credit: Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“But this religious freedom became an important space where people could receive the gospel, and culturally and legally, there was an opening,” she said. 

Durham, who would go to Ukraine about once a year, worked with a group of scholars in Ukraine who were helping many churches receive official recognition in the 1990s after many countries that were part of the former Soviet Union were forming legislation. 

“The integrity, the courage, the passion with which people work on these things all over Eastern Europe was incredible,” he said. 

Power of lived faith 

In response to a question about what people who aren’t in academic or political arenas could do, Sister Eubank offered five suggestions that she would give to the 20-year-old in her life about the power of their example. 

Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Relief Society general presidency, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building.
Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Relief Society general presidency, speaks at the panel section during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building. Credit: Mengshin Lin, Deseret News
  1. Discipline your humor. “Don’t accept jokes that poke at somebody’s ethnicity or failure and it seems like the tiniest thing, but people pay attention to that,” she said. Instead, look to the kind of humor that is gentler and lifts people. 
  2. Find ways to build bridges. “It’s easy enough to do, but when we get busy, we don’t reach out of our bubbles,” she said.
  3. Don’t be a troll. Be civil. “Be the person your grandmother thinks you are.” 
  4. Find concrete ways to get to know those of other faiths. One way is through a faith’s celebrations, whether an invitation for pot roast at fast Sunday events, celebrating advent or giving up something for Lent. 
  5. Using the internet and social media to talk about what you’ve learned about religious freedom. “Be an example of the believers,” she said. 

Doxey noted BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies has several brochures that are guides to religious freedom in the public square, in schools, in the workforce and in many countries, online at iclrs.org