ORANGE, Calif. — Religious groups should unite to protect the religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a speech Friday at Chapman University law school.
He called religious freedom one of the Constitution's supremely important founding principles.
"We must never see the day when the public square is not open to religious ideas and religious persons," Elder Oaks said. "The religious community must united to be sure we are not coerced or deterred into silence by the kinds of intimidation or threatening rhetoric that are being experienced.
"Whether or not such actions are anti-religious, they are surely anti-democratic and should be condemned by all who are interested in democratic government. There should be room for all good-faith views in the public square, be they secular, religious or a mixture of the two."
In his speech, Elder Oaks cited a number of religiously diverse examples and leaders in highlighting his four points on preserving religious freedom:
Religious teachings and religious organizations are valuable and important to a free society, thus "deserving of their special legal protection."
Religious freedom "undergirds the origin and existence of this country and is the dominating civil liberty."
The constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion "is weakening in its effects and in public esteem."
Such a weakening can be attributed "to the ascendancy of moral relativism."
Religious individuals should insist on their constitutional right and duty to exercise their religion, to vote their consciences on public issues and to participate in elections and debates, Elder Oaks said.
He called for a unified, broad coalition defending religious freedoms — a proposal that doesn't require common doctrinal ground between faiths but a shared belief that the rights and wrongs of human behavior have been established by a Supreme Being.
"All who believe in that fundamental should unite more effectively to preserve and strengthen the freedom to advocate and practice our religious beliefs, whatever they are," he said. "We must walk together for a ways on the same path in order to secure our freedom to pursue our separate ways when that is necessary according to our own beliefs."
Elder Oaks added he is not proposing "a resurrection of the so-called 'moral majority,' " — which was identified with a particular religious group and political party — nor an alliance or identification with any current political movement.
"I speak for a broader principle, nonpartisan and, in its own focused objective, ecumenical," he said.
Of his four points, Elder Oaks spent most of his time on the third, offering a number of trends "eroding" both the protections provided by the free exercise clause and its historical public esteem.
He quoted Cardinal Francis George, the then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who referred in a 2010 BYU speech to "threats to religious freedom in America that are new to our history and to our tradition" — including threats to current religious-based exemptions from participating in abortions and the development of gay rights and the call for same-sex marriage.
Said Elder Oaks: "Along with many others, I see a serious threat to the freedom of religion in the current assertion of a 'civil right' of homosexuals to be free from religious preaching against their relationships. Religious leaders of various denominations affirm and preach that sexual relations should only occur between a man and a woman joined together in marriage. One would think that the preaching of such a doctrinal belief would be protected by the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, to say nothing of the guarantee of free speech. However, we are beginning to see worldwide indications that this may not be so."
He labeled as alarming recent evidences of a narrowing definition of religious expression and an expanding definition of "the so-called civil rights of 'dignity,' 'autonomy' and 'self-fulfillment' of persons offended by religion preaching."
And he took exception to the suggestion by President Barack Obama's head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that a "sexual-orientation liberty" could become such a right that it should prevail over a competing "religious-belief liberty."
"Such a radical assertion should not escape analysis," Elder Oaks said, because it condemns the notion of a centuries-old fundamental right of freedom of religion to becoming recast as a simple "liberty" ranked among many other liberties. It also would create sexual orientation as a fundamental right called "sexual liberty" and to the conclusion that religious expressions can be overridden by a fundamental right to "sexual liberty."
The result: Legal definitions of traditional marriage and family are deteriorating and under attack.
"All of this shows an alarming trajectory of events pointing toward constraining the freedom of religious speech by forcing it to give way to the 'rights' of those offended by such speech," Elder Oaks said. "If that happens, we will have criminal prosecution of those whose religious doctrines or speech offend those whose public influence and political power establish them as an officially protected class."