Freedom of religion is a basic principle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a fundamental human right. Readers frequently ask why the Church News writes so much on this important topic.
This episode of the Church News podcast features Deseret News reporter and editor Kelsey Dallas sharing her expertise on religious freedom. Dallas received a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity School and covers religion, politics and the Supreme Court for the Deseret News. She also serves as associate editor of Deseret News National.
Kelsey Dallas: I can see how that issue of religious freedom really flows through so many different parts of life, so: politics, yes, the Supreme Court, yes, but also just our interactions with our neighbors, our conversation with our school districts, and to see how it really matters that we all understand religious freedom and believe in it and try to uphold it in our country and in our personal lives. And I think that my own relationships with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is partly why I’ve become so excited about being able to have this job explaining religious freedom and explaining how powerful this interfaith movement can be. I’m not a member of the Church, but I live in this area that’s kind of dominated by members; and so I feel those olive branches of friendship extended to me regularly, and so it’s really exciting to try to encourage people through my writing to do the same in their life.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Freedom of religion is a basic principle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a fundamental human right. At the Church News, readers frequently ask us why we write so much about this important topic. Deseret News reporter Kelsey Dallas is recognized nationally for her work on this topic, and joins us today to share her expertise and insights. Kelsey covers religion, politics and the Supreme Court for the Deseret News and serves as associate editor of Deseret News National. She holds a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity School. Kelsey, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kelsey Dallas: Thanks for having me.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Let’s just jump right in and have you start: what led you to start covering religious freedom for the Deseret News?
Kelsey Dallas: I basically started covering it because I was told to start covering it. It’s always been a key focus area of our religion coverage; and so when I joined the staff about eight years ago, and when they brought me on board to be full-time religion reporter, it was basically just expected that I would pick up that topic.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So how has your view on the topic changed during the time that you’ve covered it?
Kelsey Dallas: It’s been incredible, because when I first started working on the topic, I couldn’t have told you what it meant. I couldn’t have told you why it mattered. It felt like kind of this news that I had to get through in order to do more interesting stories; and as I’ve really dug into it and talk to a lot of people who are very passionate about it, I can see how that issue of religious freedom really flows through so many different parts of life, so: politics, yes, the Supreme Court, yes, but also just our interactions with our neighbors, our conversation with our school districts. So it’s been incredible just for my eyes to be opened and to see how it really matters that we all understand religious freedom and believe in it and try to uphold it in our country and in our personal lives.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So what type of stories fit under the umbrella of religious liberty?
Kelsey Dallas: It can be all sorts of stories. Really, what’s been a focus in the past two years is a lot of the faith related elements of the COVID-19 crisis; and so that was starting with church closures and what the law said about whether that was alright for health officials to shut down in person worship. And it’s really transformed in recent months to be more about vaccination and whether a person who has a faith-based concern about getting vaccinated is allowed to have an exemption from a workplace mandate.
And then other issues are the Supreme Court, just different cases that they’re hearing: one of the big ones that we’ll probably discuss has to do with school prayer, and what types of religious expressions teachers are allowed to make. And then in recent weeks, the abortion issue has been huge, and that might not seem obviously like a religious freedom story. It may be as a faith story, but why does religious freedom come into it? It does because there’s certain faith groups that actually encourage or mandate an abortion in the case where the woman’s health is in danger. So that’s particularly in the Jewish world, and so there’s been questions that if abortion becomes essentially illegal in certain states, is there a way to use religious freedom law to challenge that restriction? So, that’s a very live debate that I’ve been trying to follow.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I want to reverse a little bit and talk more about the pandemic, because we had so many senior Latter-day Saint leaders who stepped up during the pandemic and said religion is essential. We had some pretty important talks from President Dallin H. Oaks and from Elder David A. Bednar about this idea that in some states people were allowed to go to bars, and yet they were questioning whether people had the right to gather for religious observance.
Kelsey Dallas: Yes. Those policies that you’re describing things where you saw a long list of, quote, essential services that maybe included gambling in Nevada, like a casino could stay open. Why on earth wouldn’t you include a house of worship? And I think what I came to believe is that in many cases, it was a religious literacy problem that people didn’t understand what the big deal was about having to worship on Zoom: “Hey, people of faith, why can’t you make the sacrifice for us? We all are kind of grumpy about how things are going, so hey, pipe down over there.” But I think that there was really a public education that had to take place and in certain places did take place that was just, “No, this matters to be able to be in the pews together or to take communion together.” And so I really have spoken about that quite a bit, that I think that many people of faith were unfairly treated like they weren’t team players; when really, they felt like it was a reasonable request.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And there were even some places — I remember one specific example in Korea, where religions were accused of being super-spreaders.
Kelsey Dallas: Yes. And that has come up in the U.S. context, because there were examples of denominational meetings where there was infection — that’s even happened in recent weeks where I think some Catholic bishops had gathered together and suddenly the whole lot of them tested positive. But I think that what’s interesting is that if you would ask those people, “Well, would you still gather if you knew this would happen?” I assumed they would say yes, they just might say, “Oh, but we wish we had worn masks,” or “Oh, we wish we had spread out a little bit more.” So that’s what’s been maybe hard for people to understand, but maybe they got that message over the course of the past two years, which is that, as you said, religion is essential, this matters to us, if I’m gonna go to the grocery store then I’m going to go to church too.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and certainly — especially for our Latter-day Saints audience, but for the larger audience in the United States, —masks and vaccines have become a pretty big issue.
Kelsey Dallas: Yes. And that’s why we’re really not able to solve that debate: even if we sort of reach just regular life, normal life, if we return to going about our day like we would have in 2019, there’s still going to be these debates about if your company is going to mandate vaccination, are you allowed to request an exemption based on your faith? How do you prove that your faith really doesn’t or that you personally don’t believe in vaccination? And that’s a very live conflict. It’s, especially in recent weeks, been about the military and if you refuse to get vaccinated, are you still able to serve the country in a full way and be deployed? And so the Supreme Court, many legal experts I have spoken to have said the Supreme Court will almost certainly be visiting this in the months to come.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to jump in now and talk about school prayer. So many people care about this issue, and it does intersect right in the heart of public and private life.
Kelsey Dallas: I have a story coming out later this year — probably in July or August — about the history of the school prayer debate in the United States, and I think what’s so really depressing about it is that there’s so much confusion that’s coupled with the anger. People don’t understand what they’re allowed to do, and in many cases, school administrators don’t understand what the Supreme Court has said, what other courts and legal experts have said.
So basically, where we stand this year is that you’re not allowed to have school prayer in an official capacity where the school has written the prayer that’s recited or where the school is saying, “OK, now we’re all going to join hands and bow our heads.” But there are opportunities for individual religious expression, for a student to take a moment to themselves, for a student to form a club that’s based around religious beliefs somehow, and where the Supreme Court is currently reflecting is what do those opportunities look like for teachers? So the case that’s called Kennedy v. Bremerton is about a football coach that would go on to the field after games, say a brief prayer, and it kind of spiraled out of control where sometimes students were joining around him, where sometimes community members were joined around him. And so the question is, “Does that quiet moment of prayer actually become a spectacle of the kind that we can’t allow?” Because it maybe crosses the line into something that violates the religious freedom aspects of the Constitution.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And certainly for the year 2022, this issue has at least amplified for many of us because of so many discussions about LGBTQ rights.
Kelsey Dallas: Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So tell us how religious freedom and LGBTQ intersect?
Kelsey Dallas: Well, the LGBTQ rights debate is really where I think I caught this fire for why religious freedom matters; that we’re having, in real time, a transformation of the country where we’re saying, “How do we need to adjust our laws to make sure that people in the LGBTQ community are safe, feel welcome, are able to sort of have the housing, have the jobs that they want?” And anytime that there’s been efforts to adjust policies to make sure that that’s possible, there has to be a conversation about additional protections for people of faith protections for religious organizations that don’t support same-sex marriage, or that are evolving on same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights issues.
And so it really started when I was covering it as a conversation about what we’ve done in Utah on that issue. Those who live here might remember that in 2015, there was a law passed that’s called often the Utah Compromise, where there were additional protections put into the law for gay and transgender residents, but those protections were coupled with sort of clarification on the rights of more conservative people of faith that might be uncomfortable, again, with same-sex marriage or with the transgender issues. And so that was really an eye opening experience where I understood how a law, a very carefully written law, could sort of allow people to move forward together, and each feel heard and understood and protected.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have worked on an LGBT rights bill called “Fairness for All,” and my understanding is that the bill prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation or gender identity, and then also provides certain benefits and exemptions for those of faith.
Kelsey Dallas: It’s an effort to update the federal civil rights protections to recognize the needs of the LGBTQ community, but then also update those faith-related parts to make sure that we don’t put any religious organization in an uncomfortable position where they have to choose between living according to their beliefs and abiding by these civil rights laws. So it was originally introduced, I believe, in 2019, and it’s been reintroduced in 2021. And so I’ve been following that and following efforts to take similar approaches at the state level, and why that is especially significant to the Deseret News and to those of us who live here in Utah is that that federal effort really was inspired by that bill I was just speaking about, the Utah Compromise, where the leaders involved in “Fairness for All” are saying, “Look at this state and how it’s really come to thrive in the aftermath of passing that bill — we want to bring that same opportunity to the country as a whole.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I want to sort of dig down and have you give us some specific examples. When I think about this issue, the case that always comes to my mind is the Colorado baker who doesn’t want to make a wedding cake for an LGBTQ couple.
Kelsey Dallas: Yes. So that was in front of the Supreme Court, and the question was whether someone that’s operating as a public facing business, also known as a public accommodation, is allowed to turn customers away because of religious concerns. That baker was saying, “I don’t want to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple, because that feels like a statement about supporting their marriage.” And because of his faith, he did not; and so that certainly is a piece of this federal debate, and I think that where they have landed is that we need to make sure that businesses are able to operate according to their beliefs, but also that those customers are treated in a dignified way. And so it’s attempting to tease out the nuances that are often lost, because I think that in some cases, a bakery, it wouldn’t be a yes or no question to the cake. It might be, “Oh, hold on a second, let me go find my colleague, and they can work with you on this.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: When we look at “Fairness for All,” what are the prospects for that bill and is there a chance that it might pass in the near future?
Kelsey Dallas: It’s a tricky moment right now in politics in general. So if you follow the news, I think you get a sense that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have really peeled away from each other. They’re living in separate camps with not much conversation happening between them, and so the “Fairness for All” actors kind of stuck in that middle abyss: that it has support from some Republicans, it has support from some Democrats, it has some support from some right-leaning groups and left-leaning groups. But neither of the parties is really going to go to bat at this moment for it; and, in fact, the Democratic Party is really all in on a separate measure called the Equality Act, which would adjust federal civil rights law in a similar way but not offer all those adjustments for religious organizations or strengthen religious freedom protections, and so you really have a difficult audience with the Democratic side.
And then the Republican Party on the other hand is still kind of in a waiting period of, “Do we need to act on this at all? What will this look like if we take charge of Congress in the future? Could we instead pass something that just does the religious freedom part of it?” And so we’re all kind of waiting to see what comes next to see what happens in the midterms in November; and how, if power changes hands, or if we’re just still sort of stuck waiting for action.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I think all of us know that so many issues that we’re talking about in Congress are really decided by the Supreme Court; and so taking issues that are not dealt with legislatively, but that are decided through the court system is something fascinating. What are some of the religious-related cases in the Supreme Court right now?
Kelsey Dallas: Well, it’s interesting: what you’re describing is absolutely the truth, that we’re sort of waiting on the Supreme Court to intervene, but that’s because of inaction in the legislative set. So it’s unfortunate that there hasn’t been sort of an engagement by lawmakers to really create a solution or get something done. As I mentioned earlier, the school prayer case is a huge issue in front of the Supreme Court right now. It was just heard last month in April, and so we probably won’t have that decision until the very end of June. But the other big case I’m waiting for is about school funding. It was out of Maine, it had to do with whether public education money could be filtered into private religious schools, if that’s where families decided to go. The abortion case that we’re all watching closely — that did not have any sort of official religious freedom claim in it, but there are certainly people of faith watching it closely and religious organizations prepared for activism of many different kinds. And the other thing I should note, since we talked about that Colorado baker case, is that the Supreme Court’s going to be looking at a very similar case this coming fall. So the next term that, again, has to do with if you’re a public facing business, are you allowed to make policies based on your beliefs?
Sarah Jane Weaver: I want to talk about your personal background, and how that has shaped your opinions on this issue. What did you learn in your studies at Yale Divinity School that prepared you to be able to weigh in to this issue?
Kelsey Dallas: Interestingly enough, I’m not sure that I learned anything in classes at Yale that prepared me to cover this. It was really in the relationships I built with students and faculty that came from very different political backgrounds, very different religious backgrounds, and we had to sort of learn to work together and try to understand each other and all get along. And I would say the same thing of my college education where I did a religious studies degree, it wasn’t so much about having clear cut answers on what to do in conflicts. It was just understanding the broad diversity of teachings on topics like abortion, or birth control, or marriage, and just knowing that, “Oh, my gosh, if there are Americans who believe all these different things, then we have to find a way to work together,” because that was really the promise of the country was that we’re going to be pluralistic. We’re going to be a place where people can live out a variety of beliefs, and so it matters that we take the time to understand each other and really commit to finding solutions.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and Elder Quentin L. Cook was recently in New York and he met with many, many different religious leaders representing many faiths, and in every discussion, the conversation always turned to the fact that people who feel accountable to God in any way, shape or form should link arms, should work together to defend the right of those who are religious in this country. What have you observed about the people in this issue, those who are fighting for religious liberty, and do you see such a linking-arms across religions?
Kelsey Dallas: There’s an incredible diversity in the voices that are involved in all of these debates, including the “Fairness for All” policy push. I’ve met with folks from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Jewish congregations in America, and its people who may not have theological beliefs in common, but they do have this belief about, “We have to work together to build a truly interfaith community or a truly pluralistic nation.” And so it can really break down barriers that might have existed just to be focused on a shared goal; and the goal, in this case, would be passing really robust religious freedom protections, while also helping build public understanding of why those protections are needed. And so that’s what I think that it is just at a very basic level, what every individual person in the country could do is just be willing to have conversations about faith, about what you believe, ask questions about what others believe. And it doesn’t mean that you have to personally write some sort of policy proposal — it just means that you have to invite your neighbor over for dinner one night and learn about them.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, in connection with the Washington D.C. Temple Open House which is occurring right now in Washington, DC, there is this really beautiful sort of interreligious effort that we highlighted on a recent Church News podcast. And what they did is they said — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said — “Before we invite people into our religious sacred space, we will go visit theirs. We will show that we’re interested in their beliefs and collaborate with them in a way where we ask questions and we learn about them, and then we invite them to do the same, to come and learn about us.” And I had never seen anything like that. I thought that was a really beautiful, community-building idea.
Kelsey Dallas: Oh, definitely. I have friends that are in the D.C. area that are really excited to visit the temple, and it’s partly because of having great relationships with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I think that my own relationships with those Church members is partly why I’ve become so excited about being able to have this job explaining religious freedom and explaining how powerful this interfaith movement can be. I’m not a member of the Church, but I live in this area that’s kind of dominated by members and I work at an organization that has many connections to the Church, and so I feel that those olive branches of friendship extended to me regularly, and so it’s really exciting to try to encourage people through my writing to do the same in their life.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That is really beautiful. Now, I want to be transparent: we have a hard time at the church news, getting people to be extremely interested in this topic. We write about it a lot, senior leaders of the Church talk about it a lot, and sometimes we have to keep introducing this to people. And then the question is, “Why are we talking about this so much?” Can you give us your pitch on why people should care about religious freedom?
Kelsey Dallas: Absolutely; and as I said, I speak as a converted someone who was in that same camp: “Why? Why are we writing about this? Why does this matter?” I think first and foremost, you have to realize that this is not about some vague concept. This is not about the Constitution as a document that was written decades ago, hundreds of years ago — this is about our actual lived reality and the world and country that we’re trying to build our relationships with the people in our schools, the people in our workplaces, the people who serve in government next to us. And so you have to bring it to that modern human level, and see that these religious freedom protections are a defining feature of our community. And then the only thing I would say: as you get that reader feedback, the challenge I would give to you at the Church News is trying to find ways to write about religious freedom without actually writing religious freedom without having it in the headline, because I think that it really is a snooze type of phrase or a turn-off when it’s there; and so I’ve had little games I play with myself where I write about a policy called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that’s incredibly significant. And I tell myself, “You can’t actually mention that name of the law until the second or third section. Just talk about its impact rather than its name.” So that would be the challenge, is to kind of trick people into caring about it by not letting them off the hook with that phrase that is maybe boring to them.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and certainly we’ve talked about this topic which has so much interest in the United States for us, where we have founding fathers who worked to guarantee that everyone in this nation would have certain rights, just as a very matter-of-fact part of their citizenship. What does religious liberty look like internationally when you extend this issue past the borders of the United States of America?
Kelsey Dallas: That’s such a great question, because I think people might be shocked to realize that in many other countries, we’re still dealing with situations where people are put to death because of their beliefs. People lose job opportunities because of their beliefs. It really is a matter of life or death; whereas in most cases here in the US, we’re working at the margins, we’re sort of, “OK, we’ve got all on the same page, let’s not kill each other. But how do we work out, again, who a business has to serve, or do you have to get a vaccine or not?” So in other countries, this is a really difficult issue, and the U.S., through a variety of initiatives, has tried to lend support to say, “Hey, how can we help other countries build up to be more pluralistic and how can we share our experience?” And I think that that’s why this work in the US matters, because we have to be our best selves in order to really be a mentor to other countries.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, several years ago, I visited some refugee camps in northern Iraq, and I met some women who were Yazidis, and it’s an ethno-Kurdish religion. They all wore long white dresses, and they had been driven out of their homes. Many of them had lost their husbands in the process because of their religious beliefs, and it was the first time that it really sunk deep into my heart, that this was something that was a life-or-death situation for them. In writing their story, I came across another issue that was super interesting to me, because they wore these religious clothing, and when they got to the camps, people started to ask them, “Do you need new clothes?” And what they wanted was their clothes that were religiously significant to them, and so some humanitarian organizations worked together to make sure that they had sewing machines and fabric so that they could make these clothes. And it was the first time that I had contemplated that: becoming a whole person, especially in situations where there’s emergencies, is more than just basic food, water; that in order to be a whole person, they could go to the camp, and they could be fed and they could be sheltered. But what they really needed to feel whole was to also be able to practice their religion.
Kelsey Dallas: Well, and I don’t mean to underplay the seriousness of that particular situation and the refugee crisis in general, but what stuck out to me is that that relates so much to what I’ve been writing about in the midst of the COVID pandemic, that we had people who, yes, were safe at home who had the food they needed, but they weren’t able to connect to their faith community in the way that they would have liked to; and for that, it was a heartbreak that the U.S. government needed to acknowledge that and perhaps find ways to bring people of faith together, even with some restrictions, but not just keeping them at home.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I really appreciate bringing that back home to this country where we can see how that is relevant to all of us in our own lives. Certainly, this conversation is important in so many different places. You have a newsletter that you put out that is specifically addressed to people who care about this issue. What have you learned from collaborating with other people who care about this issue?
Kelsey Dallas: Mostly, what I’ve learned is that there are more debates happening right now that involve religious freedom than I could ever have the opportunity to write about. Just recently, I was reminded that there’s still conversations happening about the rights of faith-based student groups on college campuses, for example, and I haven’t really dug into that in a few months, if not years. And so I think it’s a reminder that it’s impossible to wrap your arms around the way that every person of faith in the country is dealing with this, even though they may not name it as a religious freedom. So once you get going learning about this, you could be learning about it for the rest of your life.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And what does this mean to the average person, the average community member who learns a little bit and says, “Now I need to take action.” What does action look like? What does advocacy look like? How do they get involved in this issue, and what difference will it make for them?
Kelsey Dallas: It can start on a personal level, which is just understanding your own rights, things like reading up on, “What are opportunities for my kid to pray in a public school?” “What are my opportunities to bring a religious event to a college campus?” So just understanding, personally, what the law guarantees to you, both in your state and at the federal level. But I think, very quickly, you should move into having conversations with people of other faiths and understand where they’re coming from, understand what their concerns are — and you don’t have to become some incredible lobbyist where you’re making sure that laws are passed, but you can just become a friend to those around you and take the time to learn about their struggles and their opportunities to help them just in softer ways getting to know them. So I really think that this is a mission of community building, and not so much a mission of political revolutionizing, or something like that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: We have a tradition at the Church News podcast, we always end it with the same question, and we always let our guests have the last word. So you can go on as long as you want from here on out, Kelsey. Thank you so much for joining us, for bringing your expertise. The question that we ask is, “What do you know now?” So you’ve spent eight years writing about this, studying about this, certainly being active on social media about this issue and engaging with other experts in this field? What do you know now after doing all of that?
Kelsey Dallas: I think what’s amazing, and what I think about regularly is that the founders — so America’s founding fathers — when they wrote the Constitution, and when they put religious freedom protections in the First Amendment, that was only the beginning of the story. They were sort of putting a proposition on the table, and it’s up to all of us in future generations to find ways to live that out, and to take care of each other, and to stay true to our faith, but also respect the human dignity of one another. So I think when I first entered this job and when I first was assigned to write about religious freedom, it felt like, “Oh, that’s a thing of the past. Oh, that’s just a couple words in the Constitution.” But no, it’s the decisions we make every day. It’s the decision that Congress makes when they write policies; and so if you really care about this and learn about this, you can affect real people’s lives.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.