Elder Oaks Recognized for Championing Religious Liberty
By Gerry Avant, Church News editor
NEW YORK CITY
Recipient of the Canterbury Medal, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s highest honor, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke Thursday evening, May 16, on the importance of strengthening the free exercise of religion.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonprofit public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions. It recognized Elder Oaks as “an acclaimed attorney, jurist, author, professor, religious leader, and public advocate of religious liberty.”
Named for the cathedral in which Thomas A. Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred in 1170 by the knights of England’s King Henry II for his defense of religious freedom, the medal is given annually to leading figures who champion a vigorous role for religious ideas in the public square.
At the award ceremony held in the Pierre Hotel on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, Elder Oaks said religious teachings and religious organizations are vital to a free society and deserve its special legal protection.
He said that the United States’ robust private sector of charitable works originated with and is still sponsored most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses. Those works include education, hospitals, care for the poor, and countless other charities of great value.
Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption “by pulpit preaching,” he said, citing examples such as the abolition of the slave trade in England, the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S., and the Civil Rights movement.
He spoke of the U.S. Constitution and noted that its First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and the freedoms of speech and press are the motivating and dominating civil liberties and civil rights. “For many Americans, the free exercise of religion is the basic civil liberty because faith in God and His teachings and the active practice of religion are the most fundamental guiding realities of life,” he said.
Further, he noted that the free “exercise” of religion involves both (1) the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and (2) the right to “exercise” or practice those beliefs without government restraint.
He said the guarantee of free exercise of religion must give people who act on religious grounds greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to everyone else by other provisions of the Constitution, like freedom of speech. “Otherwise, we erase the significance of the separate guarantee of free exercise of religion. Religion must preserve its preferred status in our pluralistic society in order to make its unique contribution—its recognition and commitment to values that transcend the secular world.”
Elder Oaks said scholars have observed that for about 50 years the role of religion in American life has been declining and the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening in public esteem and “is under siege by the forces of political correctness, which would replace it with other priorities.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks (center) speaks with Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, (right) and Princeton University Professor Robert P. George (left) at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City May 16. © 2013 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
Elder Oaks said powerful secular interests are challenging the way religious beliefs and the practices of faith-based organizations stand in the way of their secular aims. “We are alarmed at the many—and increasing—circumstances in which actions based on the free exercise of religion are sought to be swept aside or subordinated to the asserted ‘civil rights’ of officially favored classes,” he said.
An increasing proportion of Americans who have no denominational affiliation—described as “nones”—have what some scholars describe as “a genuine antipathy toward organized religion,” he said.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks with guests at a reception before the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City, 16 May 2013. © 2013 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
“At the same time, some influential leaders and many educators have come to consider it bad taste or even illegal for public schools even to mention religious influences and motivations.”
He addressed the need to be sensitive to the definition of the word religion and noted the need to resist two opposite tendencies. “We must not define religion too narrowly—excluding those who do not believe as we do,” he declared.
The opposite tendency to define religion too broadly “is more seductive and more dangerous,” he said. “We already see the tendency to describe religious freedom as ‘freedom of conscience’—whatever its source. That definition can deny the protection of the free exercise guarantee to churches and the organizations through which believers exercise their faith.
Expanding the definition of religion to systems of belief not based on a divine being poses the risk of diluting free exercise protections, he said, and noted that “when religion has no more right to free exercise than irreligion or any other secular philosophy, the whole newly expanded category of ‘religion’ is likely to diminish in significance.”
Elder Oaks cited studies that show that a fourth of Americans consider religion to be the First Amendment freedom most threatened and that significant majorities of all faith traditions—even including those not religiously affiliated—said they support organizations that protect the religious freedom of all religions.
Elder Oaks referred to the New Testament account recorded in Mark 12:14–17, in which Jesus used a coin to teach the principle that people have obligations to civil government as well as to divine authority.
“Similarly, a two-sided coin reminds us of our two-fold duties to truth and to tolerance. In our efforts to strengthen religious freedom, we must always remember that the truth of our cause does not free us from our duty of tolerance toward those who differ.”