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

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

Elder Oaks criticized two legal techniques being used to push religion out of the public square.

The first is the idea of public reason, which he called an "incredible claim that laws cannot be based on religious morality" and that "religion is said to be a private rather than a public matter."

The assertion of public reason has figured in some recent court decisions on same-sex marriage, but Elder Oaks said he chose to talk about it because of its relationship to free speech.

"Religious voices, values and motivations are being crowded out of the public square," he said, because of the theory, first widely discussed in academia and now emerging in court opinions.

He also described "a companion technique" of dismissing religious values and arguments as irrational or reflecting "impermissible animus (hatred)."

"Accusations of bigotry or animus leveled at those who promote an adverse position have a chilling effect on speech and public debate on many important issues," he said. "Both freedom of speech and freedom of religion are jeopardized when their advocates are disparaged as being motivated by hatred."

A parallel

Free speech is demeaned if it is rejected in a public setting, like a court case, because of the assumed motives of the speaker or if the speech is disqualified based on stereotypes affixed to the speaker, he said.

Elder Oaks referred to the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blacks had no right of access to federal courts.

"I see a parallel between denying judicial access to a person on racial grounds and excluding public consideration of a person's opinions on religious grounds."

He added, "I submit that religious leaders and religiously motivated persons should have the same privileges of speech and participation as any other persons or leaders, and that churches should stand on at least as strong a footing as any other corporation when they enter the public square to participate in public policy debates."

Reasons for hope

In his view, religious people have multiple reasons for hope.

"I am optimistic in the long run," he said, because of the guarantees of the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the growing concern of Americans.

He also hailed new efforts to bring leaders of different faiths together for the common cause of defending religious liberty. Some efforts "are crossing denominational lines that were insurmountable a few years ago."

He also cited the advent and success of religious freedom advocacy organizations, academic centers on religion and the law at major universities, professorships or programs in religious studies, as well as journals on law and religion.

Elder Oaks said his last cause for hope is rooted in a belief in the principles of mutual understanding and accommodation.

"In this circumstance of contending religious rights and civil rights, all parties need to learn to live together in a community of goodwill, patience and understanding."

He cautioned against extreme, polarizing voices on either side.

"I believe that in time, with patience and goodwill, contending constitutional rights and conflicting personal values can be brought into mutually respectful accommodation."

Wednesday night's audience included Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Bishop John C. Wester, the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City; three of Elder Oaks' colleagues from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, D. Todd Christofferson and Quentin L. Cook; and Judge Thomas Griffith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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