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University of Utah President Michael K. Young says religious freedom on defensive

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 5:19 p.m. MDT

Michael K. Young () Michael K. Young ()

PROVO — Religious liberty isn't going to disappear with huge and obvious attacks. Instead, University of Utah President Michael K. Young said, the danger lies with subtle and incremental erosion.

"Laws can accrete in very subtle ways over time and create very serious problems that you never would have anticipated or agreed with or participated in or been willing to credit or understand at the beginning. This is a reality and not a historically unprecedented reality," Young said at the 22nd annual conference of the LDS International Society on Monday at BYU. "And that unsettles me quite a bit."

Young has been following religious liberty around the world for years. For example, he served as a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1998-2005 and was its chair for two years. He also acts as a special adviser to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on religious freedom. The LDS International Society recognized Young at the conference with its Distinguished Service Award.

For 200 years of American history, Young said there was a fundamental confidence and appreciation of religion. "The understanding that religion should be free and was necessary to a republic was very important foundationally for this country."

But that was then. Now Young sees erosion in fundamental ways.

Young described three broad arguments critics are using to limit religious freedom in America. Like the incremental erosion he fears, they increase in severity from the first to the third argument.

ARGUMENT 1: RELIGION IS NOT SPECIAL

This line of argument is not saying that religion isn't good, but it does say that religions do not have a monopoly on doing good. The argument then goes further to say that all organizations that do good should be treated equally. It sees no reason why religion should be treated differently than, say, Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Humane Society. "Religion is like everything else," Young said as he described the argument, "It is like a hobby — an interest group with a particular faith, but somebody else may choose to want to make the highway safe for bicycles. And they are pretty much equivalent."

This means that churches have to compete in every instance with other political and economic values. The incursion on religious rights may seem small, Young said, against some social value. "Thus time after time, religion loses. … But the gradual accumulation of these adverse decisions ultimately, profoundly and unalterably destroys the right to freedom of religion just as if we had repealed the First Amendment in the first place."

This argument is in play in cases involving campus clubs choosing their membership, religious schools' hiring by their own standards, doctors conscientiously refusing to perform abortions, psychologists deciding how to counsel people and even photographers decisions on whose weddings they want to photograph.

ARGUMENT 2: RELIGION IS GOOD, BUT A PRIVATE AFFAIR

Another rising argument Young sees is that religion should be entirely excluded from the public square. Religion should never be an allowable argument for any public policy or laws. Young quoted one scholar who wrote (during the Proposition 8 campaign in California that defined marriage as between a woman and a man): "Religious participation in the political process can produce dangerous results. Fervent beliefs fueled by suppressed fear are easily transformed into movements of intolerance, repression, hate and persecution."

This argument takes the idea that religions do not deserve special treatment and adds to it that they should be disadvantaged in the public square. Religion shouldn't be afforded those same free speech protections that every other citizen is guaranteed.

Young said the district court judge looking at Proposition 8 said, in essence, that religious arguments in favor of Proposition 8 could not be used as a justification for that law.

ARGUMENT 3: RELIGION HAS A NEGATIVE IMPACT

Young said this argument likens religion to corporate entities. It holds that religions, like corporations, are usually motivated by money and power and are prone to socially harmful behavior and misconduct and need to be regulated heavily. Religions endanger social justice, harmony and diversity.

These three arguments may pose a threat to religious liberty, but Young cautioned against casting the arguments proponents as enemies. "I don't think these people are, for the most part, ill intentioned. I don't think they are out there saying, 'Let's see if we can suppress a religion today,'" Young said. "That is not what is going on."

Young admitted that even though he sees the danger of these arguments, they are not even on the public's radar.

Young said polling data shows that the majority of Americans believe religion is essential, but also think the amount of protection religion has is about the right amount. They are more worried about the government promoting and sustaining religion. "The perception is not that there is some problem arising in this gradual way," Young said.

But if an incremental, and non-dramatic, erosion of religious liberty is to be stopped, Young said that people need to be attentive to the problem and not rely on institutions like the LDS Church to monitor it. He said people should be on the lookout for problems — particularly on the local level that might escape attention.

Young emphasized the importance of cultivating allies by working with organizations in civil rights areas. He said the goal is to get freedom of religion linked in their minds with other civil rights.

Young also thinks religious people need to be better champions of broader civil rights. "We should be among the most passionate civil libertarians in the world," Young said. He expanded this during the question and answer period following his presentation by saying that "we all ought to be members of the ACLU."

To Young, religious freedom is not just about making the world safe for Mormon missionaries — it is about free will and agency. "We have a profound moral obligation to protect religious freedom, not only on our behalf, but on behalf of so many others around the world."

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