In a landmark address today to the Chapman University School of Law, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirmed the importance of the free exercise of religion and called for people to work together to protect this First Amendment right. “It is imperative that those of us who believe in God and in the reality of right and wrong unite more effectively to protect our religious freedom to preach and practice our faith in God,” he said.Elder Oaks is a respected LDS leader and a legal scholar who appreciates the significance of the US Constitution and the complex issues around religious liberty. His call for unity among religious groups is urgently needed to protect the easily eroded gift of religious freedom.
Elder Oaks noted instances in which individuals who have spoken out or acted in accordance with their religious beliefs have been disciplined, dismissed from their employment and otherwise punished, describing these cases as another sign of the threat to the free exercise of religion.Looks like an excellent and much-needed message by someone who understands the importance of this topic. Religious liberty is being threatened here in the United States, as he illustrates with some examples in his talk. Of course, it is non-existent in many nations and has recently become more precarious in other places. Yes, I continue to worry about the future of religious liberty of any kind in the Middle East, in many parts of Asia, and throughout the world. May the flame of religious liberty burn especially brightly here that other nations may see more clearly.
“All of this shows an alarming trajectory of events pointing toward constraining the freedom of religious speech by forcing it to give way to the ‘rights’ of those offended by such speech,” Elder Oaks said.
Update, Feb. 5: The Deseret News provides more details about the talk. An important aspect in his discussion of the erosion of religious liberty here and in other nations is government pressure against speaking openly on religious teachings about marriage.
Of his four points, Elder Oaks spent most of his time on the third, offering a number of trends "eroding" both the protections provided by the free exercise clause and its historical public esteem.The full transcript of his speech, including numerous footnotes, is available online at LDS.org. (I love it when footnotes are included!) Here's an excerpt (footnote numbering left intact) that I found especially important, and surprising in the extent of troubling trends that he notes:
He quoted Cardinal Francis George, the then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who referred in a 2010 BYU speech to "threats to religious freedom in America that are new to our history and to our tradition" — including threats to current religious-based exemptions from participating in abortions and the development of gay rights and the call for same-sex marriage.
Said Elder Oaks: "Along with many others, I see a serious threat to the freedom of religion in the current assertion of a 'civil right' of homosexuals to be free from religious preaching against their relationships. Religious leaders of various denominations affirm and preach that sexual relations should only occur between a man and a woman joined together in marriage. One would think that the preaching of such a doctrinal belief would be protected by the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, to say nothing of the guarantee of free speech. However, we are beginning to see worldwide indications that this may not be so."
He labeled as alarming recent evidences of a narrowing definition of religious expression and an expanding definition of "the so-called civil rights of 'dignity,' 'autonomy' and 'self-fulfillment' of persons offended by religion preaching."
And he took exception to the suggestion by President Barack Obama's head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that a "sexual-orientation liberty" could become such a right that it should prevail over a competing "religious-belief liberty."
"Such a radical assertion should not escape analysis," Elder Oaks said, because it condemns the notion of a centuries-old fundamental right of freedom of religion to becoming recast as a simple "liberty" ranked among many other liberties. It also would create sexual orientation as a fundamental right called "sexual liberty" and to the conclusion that religious expressions can be overridden by a fundamental right to "sexual liberty."
The result: Legal definitions of traditional marriage and family are deteriorating and under attack.
"All of this shows an alarming trajectory of events pointing toward constraining the freedom of religious speech by forcing it to give way to the 'rights' of those offended by such speech," Elder Oaks said. "If that happens, we will have criminal prosecution of those whose religious doctrines or speech offend those whose public influence and political power establish them as an officially protected class."
When Cardinal Francis George, then President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke at Brigham Young University last year, he referred to “threats to religious freedom in America that are new to our history and to our tradition."28 He gave two examples, one concerning threats to current religious-based exemptions from participating in abortions and the other “the development of gay rights and the call for same-sex 'marriage.'" He spoke of possible government punishments for churches or religious leaders whose doctrines lead them to refuse to participate in government sponsored programs.These concerns are not paranoia. In a world and nation of growing power in the hands of the State, the threat of intrusions on religious liberty are real. Various excuses can always be offered for curtailing the influence of religion, but to protect liberty, lines must be drawn that the State cannot cross. I agree with Elder Oaks that we need concerted effort among religious groups, however divergent our theology, to preserve the liberty guaranteed by the Constitution regarding religion. That liberty is not just the liberty to silently believe whatever we want inside our own little cranium, but to preach, to speak, to influence, and to practice. And the freedom to speak must include the ability for religions and religious people to speak out on social issues.
Along with many others, I see a serious threat to the freedom of religion in the current assertion of a “civil right" of homosexuals to be free from religious preaching against their relationships. Religious leaders of various denominations affirm and preach that sexual relations should only occur between a man and a woman joined together in marriage. One would think that the preaching of such a doctrinal belief would be protected by the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, to say nothing of the guarantee of free speech. However, we are beginning to see worldwide indications that this may not be so.
Religious preaching of the wrongfulness of homosexual relations is beginning to be threatened with criminal prosecution or actually prosecuted or made the subject of civil penalties. Canada has been especially aggressive, charging numerous religious authorities and persons of faith with violating its human rights law by “impacting an individual's sense of self-worth and acceptance."29 Other countries where this has occurred include Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Singapore.30
I do not know enough to comment on whether these suppressions of religious speech violate the laws of other countries, but I do know something of religious freedom in the United States, and I am alarmed at what is reported to be happening here.
In New Mexico, the state's Human Rights Commission held that a photographer who had declined on religious grounds to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony had engaged in impermissible conduct and must pay over $6,000 attorney's fees to the same-sex couple. A state judge upheld the order to pay.31 In New Jersey, the United Methodist Church was investigated and penalized under state anti-discrimination law for denying same-sex couples access to a church-owned pavilion for their civil-union ceremonies. A federal court refused to give relief from the state penalties.32 Professors at state universities in Illinois and Wisconsin were fired or disciplined for expressing personal convictions that homosexual behavior is sinful.33 Candidates for masters' degrees in counseling in Georgia and Michigan universities were penalized or dismissed from programs for their religious views about the wrongfulness of homosexual relations.34 A Los Angeles policeman claimed he was demoted after he spoke against the wrongfulness of homosexual conduct in the church where he is a lay pastor.35 The Catholic Church's difficulties with adoption services and the Boy Scouts' challenges in various locations are too well known to require further comment.
Here's a video of some comments by Elder Oaks in an interview after his speech at Chapman.
Update, Feb. 6, 2011: For those interested in further details and legal analysis regarding the threat to religious liberty associated with conflicts around same-sex marriage, see Roger Severino's article (PDF) "Or for the Poorer? How Same-Sex Marriage Threatens Religious Liberty" in the Summer 2007 issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. It's easy to say that the issue should not affect religious liberty, but it's quite a different matter in practice. The legal implications are serious and merit further debate and discussion.