Elder Oaks Encourages Members to Understand, Promote Religious Freedom
Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer
- We must defend our religious beliefs in a kind and civil way.
- Misunderstanding fairness for all will lead to a compromising of beliefs or doctrine.
- It is through accommodation and negotiation that competing points of view are able to come to a compromise.
“Everyone … can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important.” —Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
In an effort to help Latter-day Saints navigate the topic of religious freedom, the Church launched a new website—religiousfreedom.lds.org—on September 10.
The website, announced during the Religious Freedom Conference held in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area, provides examples and helps for people to understand what religious freedom is and how they can defend their religious beliefs in a kind and civil way.
“Everyone, from kindergarten children through the ranks of professionals and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors, can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared during the event.
Latter-day Saints from 25 stakes gathered—in person at the Colleyville Texas Stake Center and via broadcast—to listen to an Apostle and other leaders address concerns and offer counsel on the topic of religious freedom.
“This special conference—the first of its kind—will focus on religious freedom and what you, as members, can do to help defend it,” said Elder Von G. Keetch, General Authority Seventy, in his welcoming remarks.
The two-hour evening event included a keynote address from Elder Oaks, as well as a talk by Elder Lance B. Wickman, emeritus General Authority Seventy and general counsel and chief legal adviser for the Church. Elder Keetch conducted the event; Alexander Dushku, a partner at the law firm Kirton and McConkie, gave a presentation on becoming informed about religious freedom issues; and Matthew Richards, a partner at Kirton and McConkie, provided practical advice. In the final presentation, Hannah Clayson Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, provided ways to be effective advocates for religious freedom.
Elder Oaks said his purpose in speaking was to explain why members of the Church must be committed to maintaining the free exercise of religion and why all citizens of the nation should be supportive of this effort.
“That support is urgently needed at a time when powerful forces—political and social—are seeking to dilute or replace it with other rights or priorities,” said Elder Oaks, a former attorney and law professor who was serving as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court at the time he was called in 1984 to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Another “paramount motive” for the Regional Religious Freedom Conference was to get members involved in a constructive way in the “vital contest for religious freedom.”
“Not many can be elected to public office,” Elder Oaks said. “Not many can plan the strategy or author the key arguments to be used in this contest. Not many will go to law school or seek a degree in political science to serve this cause.“
But everyone—people of all backgrounds and ages—can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important, he declared.
Drawing from the conference’s theme, “Fairness for all, including people of faith,” Elder Oaks spoke of being supportive of religious freedom. Misunderstanding fairness for all will lead to a compromising of beliefs or doctrine, he taught.
“The media furthered that misunderstanding by labeling a recent fairness effort in the Utah legislature as the ‘Utah Compromise,’” he said. “We deny any intent to compromise our doctrine or religious belief or to invite any others to compromise theirs. We are here to talk about how to preserve religious freedom while living with the differences that exist in our society, among friends and neighbors, and even within our families. We are also here to consider how to explain our goals and efforts without encouraging the misunderstandings that detract from our common desires to live in an atmosphere of goodwill and peace.”
In many relationships and circumstances in life individuals must live with differences as they are living “in the world but not … of the world,” Elder Oaks explained.
“While our differences should not be denied or abandoned, as followers of Christ we should live peacefully with others who do not share them,” he said.
Followers of Christ should be examples of civility and should love all people, he said. It is important to be good listeners and show concern for sincere beliefs and another person’s beliefs. Communication regarding controversial topics should not be contentious.
“In this country we have a history of tolerant diversity—not perfect but mostly effective at allowing persons with competing visions to live together in peace,” he said. “Most of us want effective ways to resolve differences without anger and with mutual understanding and accommodation. We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails. We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to epithets, boycotts, firings, and other intimidation of one’s adversaries. We need to promote and practice the virtue of civility.”
Dallas, Texas, Mormons listened as Elder Von G. Keetch of the Seventy asked members to consider “how you can best firmly teach and defend the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ, while at the same time showing love, kindness, and understanding to a person who may not accept that doctrine.” A forum on religious freedom was held in the Texas community.
Elder Oaks said Latter-day Saints are committed to the free exercise of religion because “the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation is only possible under the free exercise of religion guaranteed in our God-inspired Constitution. Thus, for us, the free exercise of religion is not just a basic and cherished principle of our Constitution; it is essential to God’s plan of salvation.”
Because of that, all people must be free to act upon their choices.
“The free exercise of religion allows all men and women to choose to develop faith in God, to worship Him, and to act on their beliefs and choices,” he said. “All of this permits the children of God to become what He wants them to become.
”We maintain that all citizens should be supportive of religious freedom because religion is uniquely valuable to society. Persons of faith therefore maintain that religious freedom is not just a concern of religious persons,” Elder Oaks said. “Nonbelievers have a strong interest in religious freedom because it is a strong force for peace and stability in our pluralistic world.”
Eight ways religion contributes to society
Elder Oaks shared an illustrative list of eight points on how churches, synagogues, mosques, and other organizations contribute to society.
1. “A ‘core value’ of Western civilization is the concept of inherent human dignity and worth.” Based on religious belief, this concept is fundamental to the protection of human life and “to the pursuit of all that is good for humanity.”
2. The robust private sector of charitable works in the United States—including education, hospitals, care for the poor, and other charities—originated with and is still supported most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses.
3. Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles.
4. “Our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior.”
5. “Along with their private counterparts, religious organizations serve as mediating institutions to shape and temper the encroaching power of government on individuals and private organizations.”
6. “Religion inspires many believers to serve to others, which, in total, confers enormous benefits on communities and countries.”
7. “Religion strengthens the social fabric of society.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke to Latter-day Saints in Dallas, Texas. He said, “Literally everyone, from kindergarten children through the ranks of professionals and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors can and should understand what religious freedom is and why it is important.”
8. “‘Religion is the foundation of democracy and prosperity’ (Clayton M. Christensen).”
Elder Oaks said: “We maintain that political realities and the religious values and actions of believers are so interlinked in the perpetuation of our society that we cannot lose the influence of religion in our public life without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms and our prosperity. We must help nonbelievers understand this reality, because the preservation of religious freedom depends upon public understanding and support for this vital freedom.”
Elder Oaks said powerful forces are seeking to weaken the free exercise of religion by diluting or replacing the First Amendment guarantee with other rights or priorities. He spoke of the disconnect from traditional belief in God and the idea of ultimate accountability to the Divine as the nation moves strongly toward secularism. “With the diminishing of public esteem for religion, the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening. Religion is surely under siege by the forces of political correctness that seek its replacement by other priorities.”
Elder Oaks said some public policy advocates “have attempted to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making laws in our democracy.”
He spoke of the ideas held by some that the free exercise of religion is no more than the privilege of worshiping in the protected spaces of homes, churches, synagogues, or mosques but isn't guaranteed elsewhere—especially in the public process of law-making.
“These arguments leave me wondering why any group of citizens with secular-based views are free to seek to persuade or impose their views on others by a democratic law-making process, but persons or organizations with religious-based views are not free to participate in the same democratic lawmaking process.
“We should all understand that if one voice can be stilled, every other voice is potentially at risk of being silenced by a new majority that finds its arguments too ‘bigoted’ or ‘hateful’ for the public square.”
Elder Oaks spoke of resolving conflicts between nondiscrimination and the free exercise of religion.
“Our main message is that we should all cease fire in the culture wars and join in efforts to achieve fairness for all. In our pluralistic society, all must learn to live peacefully with laws, institutions, and persons who do not share our most basic values,” he said.
Elder Oaks said respect and tolerance for the opinion and actions of others is only one side of a two-sided coin. The other side is what is true.
“The coin of tolerance must never be used without being conscious of both sides,” he said. One cannot seek a sensible balance between religious freedom and nondiscrimination without considering them as two sides of the same coin. “Neither should be considered in isolation. Both need to be furthered only with full consciousness of what is on the other side of the coin.”
The first step, Elder Oaks said, is to try to understand the other side’s point of view.
“We should encourage all to refrain from the common practice of labeling adversaries with such epithets as ‘godless’ or ‘bigot,’” he said. “This kind of name-calling chills free speech by seeking to impose personal, social, or professional punishments on the speech or positions of adversaries.”
Labels stop conversation and prevent a place of mutual respect and coexistence.
“Of course we will have differences that must be resolved,” Elder Oaks said. “But those differences must not be allowed to obscure the undeniable reality that we are fellow citizens who need each other and who can resolve our differences through mutual respect, mutual understanding, and, where necessary, by compromise or by the rule of law.”
Elder Oaks continued: “As the powerful emerging right of nondiscrimination has been accommodated in the law, many rank it above the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, contending that religious freedom must be curtailed wherever it conflicts with nondiscrimination. To such I say please respect the laws that provide unique protections for believers and religious institutions.”
From the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, “free exercise” of religion was established with the favored constitutional treatment of religion, speech, press, and assembly. The weakening of any part of the First Amendment weakens it all, Elder Oaks noted.
“The First Amendment framers’ guarantee of ‘free exercise of religion’ rather than just ‘freedom of conscience’ shows an intent to extend its unique protections to actions in accordance with religious belief.”
Elder Oaks offered a “practical suggestion” in the pursuit of fairness to all, including people of faith. It is through accommodation and negotiation that competing points of view are able to come to a compromise.
“We all know that our courts are the final fallback in these controversies and that the boundaries of religious freedom are rigorously policed by litigating organizations like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom,” he said. “But in our efforts to accommodate important competing values, litigation should not be the first recourse. Courts are limited to resolving the specific cases before them. They are ill-suited to the overall, complex, and comprehensive rule-making that is required in a circumstance like this contest between two great forces, nondiscrimination and religious freedom.”