Religious liberty is being challenged worldwide
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At the 2010 J. Reuben Clark Law Society Conference, held Feb. 11-13 in Salt Lake City, Elder Lance B. Wickman of the Seventy delivered a keynote address on the conference's opening night about the place of religion in the public square.
The conference's stated focus was "Service for Good Through the Law," and its theme was Doctrine and Covenants 11:12: "Verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good."
In addition to Elder Wickman, other speakers at the three-day event included Elder Cecil O. Samuelson of the Seventy, president of BYU; Michael K. Young, president of the University of Utah; William F. Atkin, Associate General Counsel for the Church; W. Cole Durham, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies; and author Stephen B. Covey.
Religion in the public square
Elder Wickman, the Church's General Counsel, raised a voice of warning about imminent threats to the fundamental role of religious beliefs in political debate.
"I believe that the greatest challenge faced by the Church," Elder Wickman said, "is the challenge to religious liberty that is growing worldwide. … A battle is looming over the effort to acquire civil social rights at the expense of civil religious rights. This battle, I believe, represents the acceleration of a disturbing slide downward in the law regarding the place of religion in the public square."
He traced the evolution of religious liberty law "as articulated by the United States Supreme Court over the last 60 years."
"It reflects, I think, a definite diminishing of the role of religion in the public square, and a marked increase in skepticism towards the free exercise of religion," Elder Wickman said.
He segued from past cases to pending litigation and spoke specifically regarding the court case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which challenges the Proposition 8 initiative passed by California voters in 2008 that limits marriage to being between a man and a woman.
"If these cases have left religion in the public square dazed and on the ropes," Elder Wickman said, "Perry v. Schwarzenegger, now pending in federal district court in San Francisco, threatens to deliver the knockout punch. …
"It threatens to replace man-woman marriage with genderless marriage in every state. And if such a ruling were ultimately affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, it would effectively extend that definition of marriage into every state."
Elder Wickman explained why Perry v. Schwarzenegger portends to define not just marriage per se but the ground rules for all future political debate as well.
"Perry seeks a court declaration that, as a matter of law, religious views may not be used to justify the denial of a social civil right," he said. "Stated differently, they essentially claim that the voters, from whom all authority in a democracy flows, may not consider religious views and values when deciding these alleged social and cultural civil rights.
"These are serious allegations and represent an arrow directly at the heart, not only of traditional marriage but at the place of religion and religious views in the political dialogue of this country. … It threatens to eliminate any discussion of religion in the public square when social or cultural rights are at issue."
Quoting extensively from the devotional address Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve delivered at BYU-Idaho in 2009 about the legal ramifications of the same-sex marriage debate, Elder Wickman enthusiastically endorsed Elder Oaks' remarks. (See Church News, Oct. 17, 2009, p. 6.)
"That address, I think, promises to become a classic, even a benchmark in our day," he said.
Secularism and other obstacles
On Feb. 12, the J. Reuben Clark Law Society awarded Brother Atkin its Franklin S. Richards Award for Pro Bono Service. The next day, during the conference's final session, Brother Atkin provided a philosophical overview of how the Church's Office of General Counsel approaches the wide range of issues it routinely confronts.
"The Office of General Counsel takes care of the legal affairs of the Church," he said. "We want the Church to be legal wherever we are so that the enemies of the kingdom cannot attack us because we've done something incorrectly."
Brother Atkin outlined several "trends that are here and coming in the next 5-10 years that have the possibility of impacting the Church adversely." Secularism is one such issue that's squarely on the Office of General Counsel's radar.
"When governments become neutral towards religion, we see less and less protection of religion and religious activities," he said. "Secularism in the world is neutral at best towards religions and hostile at worst. We're seeing more and more that it is hostile, not just neutral, towards religion."
In the United States, secularism could result in changing how the tax code treats nonprofit religious organizations.
"We think there's going to be a tightening now of what kind of entities get tax-exempt status," Brother Atkin said. "Maybe churches are no longer going to be viewed as such a positive influence in society — therefore (maybe) they're not going to be granted tax-exempt status."
Abroad, secularism is manifesting itself in a wave of anti-discrimination measures in Europe that could, for example, prevent the Church from requiring its employees to adhere to a basic level of personal worthiness and moral conduct.
"We're seeing more and more, particularly in Western Europe, the countries who are very secular are pushing anti-discrimination and not permitting any religious exclusions," he said.
Brother Atkin said that, from a legal standpoint, additional issues the Church views as potential obstacles during the coming decade include: an increase in audits of Church financial records as governments search for more revenue during a global economic downturn, immigration restrictions that could severely hamper the number of visas available to the Church for full-time missionaries, threats to the privacy of the Church's data and record private, security issues related to terrorism and the threat of cyber attack to Church systems.
A BYU law professor and 2009 recipient of the International First Freedom Award, Brother Durham is an authority in the field of international religious freedom. During a presentation on Feb. 13, he utilized a quotation from John Taylor, third President of the Church, to impress upon attendees why it behooves Latter-day Saints to take part in the fight for universal religious freedom.
"I came across this message from President Taylor: 'When the people shall have torn to shreds the Constitution of the United States, the Elders of Israel will be found holding it up to the nations of the earth and proclaiming liberty and equal rights to all men and extending the hand of fellowship to the oppressed of all nations. This is part of the program, and as long as we do what is right and fear God, He will help us and stand by us in all circumstances.'"
Brother Durham singled out the words "will be found holding it up" for explanation and commentary.
"Now let me just draw your attention to this phrase," he said. "It's not like they will start [holding it up] then. One of the fundamental things that we are about at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies is trying to work on that project of being prepared. Notice that this is something profoundly significant for both the [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and] for everyone else as well.
"And note he said, 'claiming liberty and equal rights to all men' — not in a self-interested way."
With so few attorneys able to devote their entire practice to international religious freedom, Brother Durham forecasts a future wherein ad hoc groups of attorneys doing pro bono volunteering are the ones who propel the religious liberty movement forward.
"Much of the defense work of religious freedom will be done by legal professionals who are only able to devote part of their time, often on a pro bono basis, to developing expertise in this area," he said. "Lawyers who have demonstrated expertise in other fields will have greater credibility for religious freedom work."