Randy Squires, Associated Press

Reporting on faith in our communities has made me more aware than ever of religion's role and influence at all levels of society.

Religious freedom — what it means, who it's for, how it's protected — has been a source of debate and news for centuries. And 2013 was no exception.

What sets apart today's debate from the past? As I interviewed scholars, lawyers and those with a personal stake in a religious freedom claim, it became clear to me that as America becomes more diverse, recognizing and protecting individual conscience rights takes on added importance.

As one scholar put it: "We are all a (religious) minority somewhere." And the rights of that minority deserve protection just as those of the majority.

Another distinction between past and present is that the most contentious religious freedom debates today don't center on the right to wear a hijab to work or display a Nativity scene on public property — although those cases will continue and remain important.

Instead, the most divisive cases revolve around sexuality — for instance, the government mandating an employer whose religious beliefs prohibit artificial contraception to provide birth control under a health care plan or, in another case, antidiscrimination laws forcing a bakery or a photographer, who considers same-sex marriage a sin, to accommodate a gay couple's ceremony.

But beyond the extreme and sincere differences of opinion, I found a vast middle ground of stakeholders who are working behind the scenes to find ways to protect conscience rights and those of other interests through legislated exemptions. It's a method of compromise that has worked to protect religious freedom for centuries, and there is hope it can still work today.

Religion can be a powerful force that explains how and why people do what they do. The Deseret News' approach to covering faith in the community is to explore and explain how people live their faith and the impact that has on the community at large.

Among my most rewarding assignments of covering faith in the community this past year was writing about the 50th anniversary of several seminal events in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. My past knowledge of the push by black Americans for civil rights was largely from a political perspective. But in writing stories about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the famous March on Washington, I learned the movement was largely rooted in religion.

King and other leaders used the nation's network of churches and synagogues to tap into believers' sense of justice and compassion to organize and carry out events that eventually led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

While religious institutions have always played a vital role in American society, sociologists and clergy also make a convincing and profound case that family solidarity is key to keeping faith vibrant in the community at large. Throughout the year I found a large body of sociological work that confirmed the greatest predictor of the religious lives of children is the religiosity of their parents.

Interviewing the experts about their research was always enlightening, but it was listening to the personal stories of clergy, parents, young adults and seniors about how they found faith and strive to live it that was most profound and moving — underscoring once again the extent to which religion is deeply embedded at all levels of our society.

--Matthew Brown, Deseret News

The center of gay marriage debate
Randy Squires, Associated Press

Defending individual conscience rights has often been divisive, whether involving military service, vaccinations, union dues or school curriculum. Today, same-sex marriage is the battleground for religious exemptions.

Read the full report here: Why America's long history of protecting religion is at the center of gay marriage debate

Religion and baby boomers

A Gallup pollster predicts that religion will have a more prominent place in American society as a new generation of seniors hits retirement age in the next 20 years. His reasoning: History shows that as people age, they become more religious.

Read the full report here: Religion may play more prominent role in America as baby boomers age

Divorce and young adults' religiosity

Divorce impacts the faith of adolescents and the spiritual health of religion, according to a new report that calls on churches to reach out to what researchers call the "broken leading edge" of a generation of young adults.

Read the full report here: How divorce affects young adults' religiosity

'Letter from Birmingham Jail' still resonates
Associated Press

Fifty years ago, in conditions of solitude and with little more than natural daylight, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned an epistle that would become what scholars and historians say is one of the great documents of American history.

Read the full report here: 50 years later: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' still resonates

Navigating interfaith marriage
Jenna Watson

Interfaith marriages comprised 45 percent of U.S. marriages in the last decade. But the belief that "love will conquer all" often dissolves as children arrive and unanticipated life events cause spouses to reconsider the religions of their youth.

Read the full report here: Leaving it at the altar: Navigating interfaith marriage

Religious vs. spiritual
Ariana Torrey

New research suggests that the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” rarely plays out in the way people define spirituality and live out their faith. Rather than being at odds, religiosity and spirituality often intersect in daily life.

Read the full report here: Religious vs. spiritual: Study says the truly 'spiritual but not religious' are hard to find

Religion in public schools
David Goldman, Associated Press

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision that struck down a law requiring Bible reading in schools, shooting another salvo in a culture war over religion's role in public schools that continues today.

Read the full report here: Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago set modern course for religion in public schools

Lesson from Waco
Ron Heflin, Associated Press

Mention Waco, Texas, to almost anyone, and one of three story lines emerges from the standoff between a religious sect and federal authorities that ended 20 years ago today in an inferno that killed 76 men, women and children.

Read the full report here: Lesson from Waco: Religion matters when dealing with the nonconventional

Faith and work

Private enterprise is becoming increasingly aware that accommodating the religious needs of employees can improve morale and the bottom line.

Read the full report here: Faith and work: Accommodating religion boosts morale and bottom line

Religious roots of Civil Rights movement
Associated Press

A quick scan of the program of the March on Washington, which included three prayers, gospel music and four speeches by religious leaders, illustrates how religion played a central role in this seminal event and in the Civil Rights movement.

Read the full report here: March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement

Don't miss the other editors' picks
Associated Press

Editors’ picks 2013: Care for the poor

Editors’ picks 2013: The family

Editors’ picks 2013: Excellence in education

Editors’ picks 2013: Financial responsibility

Editors’ picks 2013: Values in media