Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Refugees eat lunch at a Catholic Community Services Refugee Foster program cookout.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the owner of this paper, meets in its 182nd Semiannual General Conference this weekend under most favorable circumstances. Tens of thousands of believers from all over the world will gather in a beautiful conference center in Salt Lake City to pray, to sing hymns of praise and to receive guidance, counsel and inspiration. Millions more will participate via television, radio, satellite transmission or the Internet.

To all who have enjoyed such blessings of religious freedom throughout their lives, the joyful act of assembling for worship seems entirely natural. But although it is a right afforded by nature's God, it has not always been a right to take for granted.

Exactly 150 years ago, as the Latter-day Saints assembled for conference, a regiment of federal troops was establishing an outpost above Salt Lake City, not so much to protect the Saints as to oversee them. The troops' misgivings about the Mormons were evident when they provocatively named their fort after Stephen A. Douglas, a political nemesis of the Saints.

Thankfully, in the United States, such overtly martial threats to peaceable worship belong to a distant past.

That does not mean, however, that our religious freedom is secure. We presume that what is shared over altars and pulpits in America's churches, temples, synagogues and mosques is sacrosanct. But worshiping within a sanctuary constitutes just one facet of a living faith. Religious institutions and believers realize their vocations most fully when engaged in ministering to the sick, caring for the poor, counseling the poor in spirit, educating the rising generation and promoting integrity in society.

America's willingness to give full rein to these kind of community-conscious religious motivations has provided the foundation for our nation's rich civil society. Charities, foundations, hospitals, schools and universities have thrived when religious conscience has been unfettered. America's social movements to promote abolition, temperance, anti-corruption and civil rights can all be traced to the moral vision of our nation's religious leaders. Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship.

As an expanding secular state imprudently tries to take on more and more responsibility for health, welfare and education, the demands of state administration are increasingly conflicting with vibrant faith-based ideals. We are seeing more assaults on institutional and individual religious freedom from inflexible bureaucratic mandates.

This has become abundantly clear in recent efforts to increase the federal government's involvement in health care. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, foreseeing the potential conflict between conscience and controversial health care procedures, wisely crafted regulations that accommodated the conscience of health care providers.

The current administration, however, repealed those exceptions. And instead of accommodating individual or institutional conscience, it has excluded religious considerations from important deliberations.

Case in point: Catholic health services accounts for about one out of every seven hospital admissions in the United States, playing a particularly important role in underserved areas and underprivileged populations. But Health and Human Services bureaucrats, when crafting new health care regulations, excluded representatives from Catholic health services from their deliberations, even though private professional medical organizations were at the table. In doing so, HHS excluded the experience, expertise and moral teachings of one of America's most compassionate health care providers. The resulting mandates could force a conscientious Catholic Church to abandon its vast network of hospitals.

Francis Cardinal George, Catholic archbishop of Chicago, described the current threats to religious liberty well in a recent letter to his parishioners:

"Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship — no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long cold war to defeat that vision of society."

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In 1990 the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed its protection of the free exercise of religion, holding in Employment Division v. Smith that neutral and generally applicable laws can legitimately interfere with religious practice. Instead of acknowledging religious freedom as a preeminent right, the court has given officious bureaucrats the upper hand in regulating "the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith." People of faith need to come together and re-enshrine the free exercise of religion as our nation's most important civil liberty. But first they need to understand that today's bureaucratic threats to liberty are every bit as potent as an occupying force.