Hans Koepsell, Deseret News
FILE — Many people were in attendance at BYU Campus Education Week in Provo, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The event offered workshops on defending religious freedom.

SALT LAKE CITY — Professors repeatedly targeted Shelly Rowlan for her beliefs when the stay-at-home Mormon mom returned to school in Arizona for a master's degree.

"It would happen over and over, actually," Rowlan said. "As soon as they learned I was Christian. The professors don't support religious believers or provide space for your beliefs. They ridicule you. God was openly mocked in my classes."

Some have wondered why LDS apostles repeatedly express their growing concerns over decreasing respect for religious liberty. By one count, senior church leaders have given 39 talks on the subject since 2009, including multiple talks during the faith's twice-a-year general conferences. Its 186th Semiannual General Conference began last Saturday and resumes tomorrow and Sunday at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.

One clear reason for the emphasis on religious freedom is the painful personal experiences of Rowlan and other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who say they have found themselves on the front lines of public attacks on belief in classes, school board meetings and courtrooms around the United States.

In recent months, church leaders have launched a concerted effort to provide practical helps. They are designed to help Mormons and other people of faith respond effectively, constructively and civilly when they faced with challenges or attacks.

Websites and workshops

Rowlan survived graduate school but had to adjust.

"At first, when I didn't have a foundation of arguments, it was devastating," she said. "You were an idiot if you believed in religion." She added historical, philosophical and scientific bases for her religious positions and became calm and confident in discussions. Still, no one joined her side in classes. Other students approached and thanked her after class.

Rowlan doesn't think she is a Mormon outlier. She runs in to questions and challenges in her everyday life, apart from the volunteer work she does with a pro-life group in Arizona.

"I'm not even in the work force," she said. "It's on my tennis team. It's taking some classes at the local university. It has been a huge quandary for me. I want to share my beliefs."

That's why Rowlan traveled to Utah in August to attend BYU's annual Education Week. She attended the 18 hours of workshops on defending religious freedom. She also watched as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles delivered an impassioned defense of the value of religious belief in society.

The workshops were new to Education Week this year. They were conducted by attorneys who work for the church, professors and members of the LDS Church public affairs department. They drew large crowds.

Many of the presentations now are online at www.freedom-of-religion.org, which hosts advice for getting involved in religious liberty issues. LDS Public Affairs launched religiousfreedom.lds.org in September. The site is full of resources that include new videos depicting Mormons navigating confrontations. Both sites include links to talks by church leaders.

Courage and civility

The new resources include basic information about the definition of religious freedom, its history, its importance to religious believers and how people can get involved in their communities.

Every talk, workshop and website stressed that Mormons need to speak up, both to improve respect for religious freedom and to help those of other faiths defend their own. For example, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Twelve said this summer, "Churches and people of faith must not allow themselves to be intimidated and silenced. Your opinions count. You have a right to speak and to be heard. Make the effort to stay informed about issues of public importance, and then speak out with courage and civility — and I do emphasize civility. Our society needs your voice, your experience, and your goodness."

Leaders also asked church members to engage with civility.

"If the church or its doctrines are attacked in blogs and other social media, contentious responses are not helpful," Elder Dallin H. Oaks said at a BYU devotional this month. "They disappoint our friends and provoke our adversaries."

He has repeatedly said that when LDS positions do not prevail, Mormons should accept the results, continue to be good listeners and practice civility.

One common denominators at workshops this summer was Hannah Smith, an LDS lawyer who works for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Smith presented BYU's second-annual religious freedom review in July, at Education Week in August and with Elder Oaks at a special, 25-stake regional conference in Texas in September.

In her first two presentations, she encouraged Mormons to be hopeful. She said several recent court decisions, including at the U.S. Supreme Court, have been major victories for religious liberty. One of those cases began with a small congregation and the small-town lawyer in its fold who chose not to abandon his church or the principle in the face of intimidating circumstances. A YouTube video produced by BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies captures the story of the man, Deano Ware, and the case.

"A lot of times people think you need to be high up to be used," Ware said, "but God found me where I was at. You know what? Sometimes that's all you can do, is make yourself available. You don't know how you're going to do it...but sometimes if you can just not turn it down — don't say no — you leave the door open, and I believe anyway, for God to work.

"If this is an issue you hold dear," Ware added, "fight for it."

Throughout the workshops and websites, LDS Church members and presenters shared stories of both attorneys and regular people making a difference.

"I would encourage everyone, no matter where they are, no matter what station of life they are in, no matter their education background, to educate themselves on the issues in the defense of religious liberty," Smith said. "They need to know why it's so important, what the challenges are and to become aware of the local issues in their own neighborhoods, their own communities, their own cities. When those issues come up, they're there, they're ready and they're able to respond in an informative way."

In the Texas regional conference, Smith shared seven keys to successful conversations.

— First, seek to understand, not judge. Don't try to win a debate. Seek common ground and to understand the other person

— Second, remember the other person is a child of God

— Third, express beliefs calmly and sincerely. Explain why your beliefs and freedoms mean so much to you and your family. Personalize your conversations

— Fourth, stay true to your own beliefs. The point of understanding others is not to pretend there aren’t differences

— Fifth, allow the Holy Spirit to give you confidence to speak up with civility and without defensiveness

— Sixth, be kind, listen and love

— Seventh, when others don't reciprocate, change the subject or end with a friendly parting

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com