Religious Freedom Annual Review 2015

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Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Religious Freedom Annual Review held by the BYU International Center for Law and Religious Studies.  I was blown away.  The conference itself was exceptional, but I was shocked to discover how our religious freedoms in America are eroding rapidly.  A few days ago I would have thought, ‘that would never happen in America’.  I was caught off-guard by the rapidly changing tides.

In light of the US Supreme Court decision legalizing homosexual marriage nationally, handed down just 11 days ago, the religous freedom conference was filled to capacity and overflowing.  All were invested in understanding how these legislative changes will affect the nation. I could write several posts about what I learned but I’ll share a few points here.

Of primary concern is that in the United States, the First Amendment right of free exercise of religion is coming under pressure from proponents of same-sex marriage.

Some important issues to watch regarding recent changes:

Free Expression:  Will religious viewpoints be suppressed in the public square and other places where people live out their lives? (With regard to same-sex marriage, can we speak freely of our religious beliefs? It may not be illegal to speak your conscience, but generally, the violation of social norms leads to prohibitive unpleasantness).

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Orthodox Jews protesting outside the Supreme Court during Same-Sex Marriage debate.
Orthodox Jews protesting outside the Supreme Court during Same-Sex Marriage debate.

(Above are two examples of the opposing opinions in extreme as evidenced by protesters outside the Supreme court.)

Parent’s Teaching Children: Will parents of school children be able to ensure that their religious values aren’t undermined through classroom instruction or intimidation? (This is already happening.  When public schools in Massachusetts began teaching students about same-sex civil marriage, a Court of Appeals ruled that parents had no right to exempt their students. 1)

The Workplace: Will employees be able to maintain their religious identity in the workplace and be reasonably accommodated when work and religious duties conflict? (Here is a story of a young Muslim woman frighting for the right to wear a headscarf.)

Professional Credentials: Will professionals lose or be denied licensing for expressing religious views or declining to provide services that are available elsewhere but that are at odds with their beliefs? (For example, a Georgia counselor contracted by the Centers for Disease Control was fired after an investigation into her decision to refer someone in a same-sex relationship to another counselor. In New Jersey, a ministry lost its tax-exempt status for denying a lesbian couple the use of its pavilion for their wedding. New Mexico’s Human Rights Commission prosecuted a commercial photographer for refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. 2)

Small Businesses: Will family and religiously oriented businesses be able to maintain their values in the face of discrimination laws? (As with the Hobby Lobby abortive contraceptive issue.)

College Campuses: Will campus student groups be able to select their own leaders or express a religious message? (As with the Vanderbilt University issue of college Christian groups being de-recognized at California State University campuses.)

Freedom from Retaliation: Will those who voice beliefs be retaliated against? (As happened when Mozilla Firefox CEO was forced to resign for his support of California Prop. 8)

Religious Employment: Will churches continue to have the right to employ people that affirm and live the church’s beliefs?  Will they be forced to provide employment benefits that contradict their beliefs?

Private Property: Will churches be able to build and maintain houses of worship and other facilities?  Will they be able to preserve their religiously important properties for activities that are consistent with their religious beliefs?

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Tax Exempt Status: Will churches and schools that affirm the traditional definition of marriage lose their tax-exempt status?  Will donors’ contributions be tax deductible?

Access to Government Resources: Will religious organizations be able to participate on equal terms with other non-profit organizations in government facilities and properties?

Religious Schools: Will religious schools be able to maintain their religious values and standards while also retaining their accreditation and the ability to participate in federal educational and research programs? (As recently happened at Trinity Western University in Canada.)

In light of the RAPIDLY changing public opinion and policy, this quote on irreligion as the state religion is timely:

“We shall see in our time a maximum if indirect effort made to establish irreligion as the state religion. It is actually a new form of paganism that uses the carefully preserved and cultivated freedoms of Western civilization to shrink freedom even as it rejects the value essence of our rich Judeo-Christian heritage. Brothers and sisters, irreligion as the state religion would be the worst of all combinations. Its orthodoxy would be insistent and its inquisitors inevitable. Its paid ministry would be numerous beyond belief. Its Caesars would be insufferably condescending. Its majorities—when faced with clear alternatives—would make the Barabbas choice, as did a mob centuries ago when Pilate confronted them with the need to decide.” Neil A Maxwell

What can we do to protect Religious Freedom?

MY PERSONAL TAKE-AWAY FROM THE CONFERENCE WAS THAT WHEN PEOPLE BECOME APATHETIC, THAT IS WHEN THE NEGATIVE INPUTS TEND TO RULE.

As a nation, we are losing our religion.  The statistics are startling.  We need to educate our children religiously.

We need to celebrate and acknowledge the blessings that religion brings to society. Democracy and capitalism are both dependent on moral behavior.

We need to speak out.  That’s something each of us can do.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have a particular investment in these issues.  However, something particularly stressed at the conference was that religious freedom is only possible when we can trust that even when our views differ from each other, all will be protected by that same religious freedom.  This is fundamental.

As people of faith—all faiths—we need to counter the fear-mongering that the media presents. We can work to show respect and compromise in the midst of difficulty.  It is better to coexist  peacefully as a nation with divided beliefs. We must continue to work to improve our nation, educate and lift our fellow man.  May we continue to defend the ideal of liberty and justice for all, I pray.

More to read:

Resources on Religious Freedom

The Divine Institution of Marriage LDS Newsroom

Meeting the Challenges of Today by Neal A. Maxwell

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

References:

1) Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York and London: Encounter Books, 2012), 62–64.

2) http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/the-divine-institution-of-marriage

3) Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p.237

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