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When Rights Conflict

man sitting in a chair thinking deeply

All too often in today’s world, discussing and adhering to religious standards when they don’t align with evolving social norms is becoming less and less popular. Ironically, as tolerance of different lifestyles has increased, religious ways of life are being challenged and religious views increasingly pushed out of conversations. Some say that religious ways of life conflict with other people’s rights.

Yet religious freedom affects more than we may realize. It’s strongly associated with less poverty, better public health, more rights for women and minorities, lower income inequality, economic growth (see “Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth, Finds Global Study”), fewer incidents of armed conflict, and other benefits. It helps in the workplace, at school, among friends, and in society as a whole. Why? Because it creates a climate of tolerance. When religious freedom goes up, strife and contention usually go down.

Where religious freedom is protected, so are other rights and freedoms. Where it’s restricted, other rights are also at risk. We call religious freedom our “first freedom” because it supports all other rights. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson has asked, “How can we claim the freedom of speech without being able to say what we truly believe? How can we claim the freedom of assembly unless we can gather with others who share our ideals? How can we enjoy freedom of the press unless we can publicly print or post who we really are?” (“A Celebration of Religious Freedom,” interfaith address in São Paulo, Brazil, Apr. 29, 2015). We need religious freedom so we can use our agency to live according to what we value most. That’s one reason the freedom to act on our beliefs—in exercising our religion, speaking about it, and assembling with others who hold similar beliefs—was included in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States.

So, what happens when rights seem to conflict?

two women talking

The answer is to give everyone as much space as possible to live according to their deepest beliefs. “When the rights of one group collide against the rights of another,” taught Elder Ronald A. Rasband, “we must follow the principle of being as fair and sensitive to as many people as possible” (“Religious Freedom and Fairness for All” [Brigham Young University devotional, Sept. 15, 2015]). That approach allows people with very different values to live together in peace.

Whether we’re at work, with old friends, at school, in the neighborhood, or at a community center, we need to ensure everyone has a place to live their lives as conscience dictates, so long as they don’t harm others. Not only does giving everyone this space protect our individual human dignity, but it also strengthens the society we all share. We’re at our best as a society when we have a free and open exchange of ideas. Protecting each other’s religious freedom helps us resolve conflicts and live together with our differences. It’s the essence of democracy.

Protecting enough space for everyone to live according to what matters most to them, whether religious or not, is the best way to proceed when rights seem to conflict. It starts with love and respect—principles the Savior demonstrated and that can lead to win-win solutions for everyone. Here are a few things we can do:

  • Seek to understand the perspective of others.
  • Follow the Golden Rule. Think about how you’d want to be treated if you were in others’ shoes. Then show them that same kindness and understanding.
  • Be an example of the believers, but don’t try to force your beliefs on others.
  • Speak up for others. When you see unfair treatment, take appropriate action to help eliminate unfairness.

The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination [as for a Mormon]; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 345).

Prophet Joseph Smith painting

One result of working to preserve space for all people to live as they believe is that religious people can comfortably talk about their discipleship in public as well as in private. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we can continue to talk about our belief in Jesus Christ—we just make sure to do it with love and understanding.

See how these principles apply in the workplace, in public schools, and as we try to find common ground in communities and government on major social issues.