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Elder Oaks promotes strengthening the free exercise of religion

Becket Fund honors LDS Church leader with Canterbury Medal

Published: Thursday, May 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Further, he noted that the free "exercise" of religion involves both (1) the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and (2) the right to "exercise" or practice those beliefs without government restraint.

As he has in previous speeches on this topic, Elder Oaks argued that free exercise of religion must give people who act on religious grounds greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to everyone else through other provisions of the constitution, like freedom of speech.

"Otherwise, we erase the significance of the separate guarantee of free exercise of religion," said Elder Oaks. "Religion must preserve its preferred status in our pluralistic society in order to make its unique contribution—its recognition and commitment to values that transcend the secular world."

Elder Oaks said scholars have observed that for about 50 years the role of religion in American life has been declining and the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening in public esteem and "is under siege by the forces of political correctness, which would replace it with other priorities."

He quoted legal commentator Hugh Hewitt, who described a threat to religious freedom that is new in U.S. history and tradition: " 'For three decades people of faith have watched a systematic and very effective effort waged in the courts and the media to drive them from the public square and to delegitimize their participation in politics as somehow threatening.' "

Elder Oaks said powerful secular interests are challenging the way religious beliefs and the practices of faith-based organizations stand in the way of their secular aims. "We are alarmed at the many — and increasing — circumstances in which actions based on the free exercise of religion are sought to be swept aside or subordinated to the asserted 'civil rights' of officially favored classes," he said.

In the long run, he noted, the vitality of religious freedom must rely on public understanding and support. He referred to a recent survey's finding that the population least concerned about religious liberty in America are adults under 30, only 20 percent of whom believe that restrictions on religious freedom will increase in the next five years.

Elder Oaks said that even though about 80 percent of U.S. citizens report that they believe in God, the percent who have no denominational affiliation — the so-called "nones" — is large and growing larger, especially among the young. He said about 33 percent of young adults are among the "nones," and an increasing proportion of Americans who have no denominational affiliation have what some scholars describe as "a genuine antipathy toward organized religion."

"We must enlist the support of persons who have what is called 'spirituality' but who lack denominational affiliation," Elder Oaks declared. "Religious freedom must not be seen as something serving only the interests of churches and synagogues. It must be understood as a protection for religious people, whether or not their beliefs involve membership or behavior. Support for the First Amendment free exercise of religion should not be limited to those who intend to exercise it, individually or through denominational affiliation."

Elder Oaks emphasized that greater attention must be given to the education of the rising generation. Regarding how religion is portrayed in school textbooks, he said, "Scholars of education advise me that the current problem is not so much the 'exclusion' of religion, but its presentation in a critical or biased way that minimizes its influence.

"At the same time, some influential leaders and many educators have come to consider it bad taste or even illegal for public schools even to mention religious influences and motivations."

He addressed the need to be sensitive to the definition of the word "religion," and noted the need to resist two opposite tendencies. "We must not define religion too narrowly — excluding those who do not believe as we do."

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