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At UVU, Elder Oaks sees hope despite 'alarming' religious liberty trends

Published: Wednesday, April 16 2014 11:00 p.m. MDT

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, speaks Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at a constitutional symposium on religious freedom at the UCCU center at Utah Valley University in Orem.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

OREM — Despite an "alarming trajectory" of incursions on religious freedom, there is hope for the future, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said Wednesday night.

"Religion is being marginalized to the point of censorship or condemnation," he said during the keynote address of Utah Valley University's Constitutional Symposium for Religious Freedom. About 4,000 attended the campus lecture at the UCCU Center.

"I believe we live in a time of diminishing freedom of speech," he added.

However, Elder Oaks listed numerous reasons why "my final conclusion is a message of hope."

"One reason for optimism is that the threats to religious speech and religious freedom have become so notorious that our citizens are beginning to become concerned," he said.

The address marked his first legal lecture since 1985, a year after Elder Oaks left the Utah Supreme Court for full-time service as an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He didn't comment directly on any cases now in federal courts but criticized two legal techniques or arguments he said are being used to push religion out of the public square, drew a parallel between them and the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision denying judicial access to blacks, and offered advice for religious people and groups moving forward.

"Court contests will continue," he predicted. "Some decisions will help the effort of long-term conciliation and some will aggravate it. But in the long run, we have reason to hope that the guarantees and system of government established in our inspired Constitution will see us through these controversies as with others in times past."

Current concerns

"I am one of the many religious persons who have decried the alarming trajectory of theories, court decisions and executive actions that are diminishing the free exercise of religion," Elder Oaks said.

His address, given at the invitation of UVU's Center for Constitutional Studies, temporarily "calls me out of legal retirement," he said.

Elder Oaks resigned as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court in 1984. Nearly a year later, he kept a commitment for what became his last previous legal lecture, at DePaul University's Center for Church-State Studies. In that appearance, he made predictions that government accommodation of religious activities would increase, as would government regulation of religion, and that churches and religious people would need to protect their interests with increased legislative lobbying.

Some cases have run counter to his prediction, he said Wednesday, "but for me it represents a generally accurate forecast of the movement of church-state law in the 30 years since I offered it."

Wednesday's comments centered on current legal arguments "of long-range concern."

Elder Oaks maintained that freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion doubly protect religious liberty, but he said there are reasons to be concerned about the vitality of both.

"I fear that free speech is diminishing as a result of the chilling effect of mostly invisible restraints, even censorship."

He cited a number of examples but then added another, one "very personal to me," of the boycotts, firings and intimidation of those who backed Proposition 8 — defining marriage as between a man and a woman — in California. He mentioned the recent resignation of Mozilla's new CEO over a $1,000 donation he made to Proposition 8 six years ago.

Elder Oaks called it "another unfortunate example of bullying and intimidation that too often seeks to censor speech in the public square."

Two techniques

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