Freedom of religion is a basic principle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a fundamental human right. Moral agency, the ability to choose right from wrong and to act for ourselves, is essential to God’s plan of salvation. Religious freedom ensures that people can exercise their agency in matters of faith.
The Church’s eleventh article of faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Religious freedom embraces not only the right to freely worship but also to speak and act based on one’s religious beliefs. In a modern revelation, the Lord states that just laws should be “maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, … that every man may act … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:77–78). Governments cannot “exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience” (D&C 134:2). Thus, governments are bound “to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief” (D&C 134:7).
Religious freedom safeguards the right of all people to hold their own religious beliefs and express them openly without fear of persecution or being denied equal rights of citizenship. It ensures that people can freely choose or change their religion, teach their faith to their children, receive and disseminate religious information, gather with others to worship, and participate in the ceremonies and practices of their faith. It protects individuals from religious discrimination in employment, housing, and other basic services and prevents people from being denied the right to have a business, occupation, or professional license based on their religion.
Freedom of religion protects not only individuals but also the religious organizations that make faith communities possible. It encompasses the right to form churches and other religious institutions, such as religious schools and charities. It affords such institutions the freedom to establish their doctrines and modes of worship; to organize their own ecclesiastical affairs; to determine requirements for membership, ecclesiastical office, and employment; and to own property and construct places of worship. “We do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship” or to “dictate forms for public or private devotion” (D&C 134:4).
Many of these principles are embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” International human rights documents likewise recognize the universality of freedom of religion and belief. Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Religious freedom is not absolute. Limits on religious activities are appropriate where necessary to protect compelling interests, such as the life, property, health, or safety of others. But such limitations should be truly necessary, rather than an excuse for abridging religious freedom. Where the law constrains religious freedom, Latter-day Saints believe in obeying the law while seeking protection for their fundamental rights through such lawful means as may be available in each jurisdiction or country.
Latter-day Saints believe in defending the religious freedom of others just as readily as their own. 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; 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” (History of the Church, 498–99 [discourse given by Joseph Smith on July 9, 1843, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Willard Richards]).
Early Latter-day Saints codified this sentiment in a Nauvoo City ordinance guaranteeing tolerance for all faiths: “Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city” (Ordinance in Relation to Religious Societies, City of Nauvoo, Illinois, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 1, 1841).