NEW YORK CITY — Religious teachings and religious organizations are vital to a free society and deserve its special legal protection, Elder Dallin H. Oaks affirmed in a speech May 16 upon receiving the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty's highest honor, the Canterbury Medal, during a program held in the Pierre Hotel on New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
Named for the cathedral in which Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred in 1170 by the knights of England’s King Henry II for his defense of religious freedom, the Canterbury Medal is given annually to champions for religious liberty. Elder Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was recognized for his "lifetime commitment to religious liberty for all."
Cardinal Francis George from Chicago introduced Elder Oaks, calling the LDS leader "one of the great defenders of religious liberty." Cardinal George commended Elder Oaks for his ambassadorial role in helping Catholics and Latter-day Saints "to see one another as partners in protecting principle."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit public-interest law firm that for nearly 20 years has attempted to protect the free expression of all religious traditions through strategic litigation.
More than 500 religious leaders, lawyers and financial supporters attended the gala black tie dinner, an annual fundraising event for the Becket Fund's litigation efforts.
Master of Ceremonies William Mumma, president of the Becket Fund, gave a sometimes humorous but consistently emphatic account of the mounting threats to religious freedom. "This is not about a value-free public square," said Mumma. "Government wants to prescribe its own moral code in order to trump religious belief. This is about power."
Reverend Eugene Rivers III, pastor of Azusa Christian Community and an advisor to Republican and Democratic presidents regarding faith-based initiatives, gave a spirited invocation, noting "this struggle will not be easy, but by faith ... we know that victory is certain."
Also recognized at the dinner were Steve and Jackie Green. The Greens own and manage Hobby Lobby, a for-profit company that attempts to use Christian principles. Hobby Lobby is now engaged in litigation over a health care mandate that asks them to violate their religious beliefs or pay more than $1 million in fines each day. The Becket Fund is helping to defend Hobby Lobby.
In his address, Elder Oaks said that the United States' robust private sector of charitable works originated with and is still sponsored most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses. Those works include education, hospitals, care for the poor and countless other charities of great value.
Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption "by pulpit-preaching," he said, citing examples such as the abolition of the slave trade in England, the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S. and the Civil Rights movement.
He noted, "Our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior. Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to produce such voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens."
Elder Oaks said that in America’s founding and in its constitutional order the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and the freedoms of speech and press are the motivating and dominating civil liberties and civil rights. "Appropriately, the guarantee of freedom of religion is the first expression in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, and it is embodied in the constitutions of all 50 of our states. For many Americans, the free exercise of religion is the basic civil liberty because faith in God and his teachings and the active practice of religion are the most fundamental guiding realities of life."
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."
The opposite tendency to define religion too broadly "is more seductive and more dangerous," he said. "We already see the tendency to describe religious freedom as 'freedom of conscience' — whatever its source. That definition can deny the protection of the free exercise guarantee to churches and the organizations through which believers exercise their faith.
Expanding the definition of religion to systems of belief not based on a Divine Being, poses the risk of diluting free exercise protections, he said, and noted that "when religion has no more right to free exercise than irreligion or any other secular philosophy, the whole newly expanded category of 'religion' is likely to diminish in significance."
Elder Oaks spoke of some encouraging developments during the past five years. He mentioned the work of the Becket Fund; advocacy of many influential religious leaders; formation and work of the American Religious Freedom Program, under the auspices of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and "the turning tide of scholarly support for the free exercise of religion as it applies to important social issues."
He said there are encouraging signs that the American public "is awakening to the importance of strengthening religious freedom." He cited studies that show that a fourth of Americans consider religion to be the First Amendment freedom most threatened, and that significant majorities of all faith traditions — even including those not religious affiliated — said they support organizations that protect the religious freedom of all religions.
Elder Oaks referred to the New Testament account recorded in Mark 12:14-17, in which Jesus used a coin to teach the principle that people have obligations to civil government as well as to divine authority.
"Similarly, a two-sided coin reminds us of our two-fold duties to truth and to tolerance. In our efforts to strengthen religious freedom, we must always remember that the truth of our cause does not free us from our duty of tolerance toward those who differ."
Paul S. Edwards, Deseret News editor, contributed to this report.
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