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Mike Lewis, BYU-Idaho
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve speaks during a devotional Tuesday afternoon at BYU-Idaho's Hart Auditorium.

The free exercise of religion — as protected by the U.S. Constitution — is under attack, an LDS leader says, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are being called upon to rally in its defense.

"There is a battle over the meaning of that freedom," said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve. "The contest is of eternal importance, and it is your generation that must understand the issues and make the efforts to prevail."

He listed several examples of current controversies regarding religious freedom — laws governing marriage and adoption, laws regulating activities of church-related organizations in furthering their religious missions, and laws prohibiting discrimination in employment circumstances against people with unpopular religious beliefs or practices.

The former University of Chicago law professor, Brigham Young University president and Utah Supreme Court justice acknowledged during his devotional talk Tuesday afternoon at BYU-Idaho's Hart Auditorium that, thanks to the Internet age, his message would be received by an even wider, more diverse audience.

Christian principles of human worth and dignity made possible the Constitution's formation more than 200 years ago, and only those principles in the hearts of a majority of a diverse American population can sustain the Constitution today, he said.

"Religious values and political realities are so interlinked in the origin and perpetuation of this nation that we cannot lose the influence of Christianity in the public square without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms," he said.

"I maintain that this is a political fact, well qualified for argument in the public square by religious people whose freedom to believe and act must always be protected by what is properly called our 'First Freedom,' the free exercise of religion."

The Constitution's fundamental principle of popular sovereignty, which implies popular responsibility, allows individuals to act according to their moral agency and to be held accountable for those actions.

"In other words, the most desirable condition for the effective exercise of God-given moral agency is a condition of maximum freedom and responsibility — the opposite of slavery or political oppression," Elder Oaks said.

The Constitution contains a prohibition against "an establishment of religion," intended to prohibit a government-established church and avoid the types of national churches still found in Europe. The free "exercise" of religion, he added, involves rights to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and to practice those beliefs.

"The inherent conflict between the precious religious freedom of the people and the legitimate regulatory responsibilities of the government is the central issue of religious freedom," Elder Oaks said.

Elder Oaks described several threats to be faced and confronted in the future, one being the threat of denying of free speech and religious freedom.

He underscored recent changes in religious devotion nationally, including a rising intolerance of Christianity, the rejection of God's existence or authority, the growing hostility of atheism and the intimidation of those with religious-based views from influencing or making state or federal laws.

"A second threat to religious freedom," he said, "is from those who perceive it to be in conflict with the newly alleged 'civil right' of same-gender couples to enjoy the privileges of marriage."

Elder Oaks referred to the aftermath of the majority-approved Proposition 8 state constitutional amendment in California's 2008 election, defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Opponents criticized the LDS Church and its members, saying they were "denying" or "stripping" others of their "rights."

"In fact, the Proposition 8 battle was not about civil rights, but about what equal rights demand and what religious rights protect," he said. "At no time did anyone question or jeopardize the civil right of Proposition 8 opponents to vote or speak their views.

"The real issue in the Proposition 8 debate — an issue that will not go away in years to come and for whose resolution it is critical that we protect everyone's freedom of speech and the equally important freedom to stand for religious beliefs — is whether the opponents of Proposition 8 should be allowed to change the vital institution of marriage itself."

With traditional marriage being part of the teaching of Judeo-Christian scriptures and the Western cultures' core legal definition and practice for thousands of years, those seeking to change the foundation of marriage should not be allowed to pretend that those defending it are trampling on civil rights, Elder Oaks said.

"The supporters of Proposition 8 were exercising their constitutional right to defend the institution of marriage — an institution of transcendent importance that they, along with countless others of many persuasions, feel conscientiously obliged to protect," he said.

"Any such effort to have governments invade religion to override religious doctrines or practices should be resisted by all believers."

On the Net: To view Elder Oaks' full text, visit newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/apostle-says-religious-freedom-is-being-threatened.

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com