SALT LAKE CITY — With the recent addition of a Facebook page and website videos on the subject, the LDS Church is joining what one of its leaders said is a "growing chorus" of faith groups around the country seeking to engage followers in the issue of religious freedom.
Religious conflicts related to same-sex marriage, health care reform, military chaplaincy and personal expression in town halls and public schools have all been moved under an umbrella of religious liberty by a broad-based coalition of faith groups, which are reaching out to each other and their membership to find ways to counter what they say is an unprecedented assault on everyone's right to live their beliefs.
"We are not a soloist in this. We are part of a chorus and it's a growing chorus," said Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the Presidency of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Events are conspiring to make it a bigger chorus."
A leader in the campaign has been the Roman Catholic Church, which made religious liberty a top priority after Congress in 2009 passed the Affordable Care Act, which the church said violates its stand against birth control by requiring all employers to provide contraceptives through health care insurance plans.
Other Christian faiths joined the opposition to the contraception mandate, which has generated more than 60 lawsuits against the government by faith-based organizations and employers. But the religious liberty movement has gained considerable steam in the past year after several states made same-sex marriage legal and the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Clergy and military chaplains whose faiths don't support gay marriage are clamoring for legal protections against having to perform same-sex ceremonies. Gay marriage proponents say such concerns are unfounded since the First Amendment already provides that protection. But religious business owners have found themselves unprotected and in some cases in violation of local ordinances that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"As a consequence, for several years now the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have made repeated and very measured attempts to strengthen religious freedom everywhere across the country," Elder Clayton said. "The church has a vital concern in ensuring that its mission to bless people across the country will be preserved by the ongoing preservation of these freedoms and liberties that we have for most of our lives taken for granted."
The faith group with the longest history of fighting for freedom of conscience and worship and a separation of church and state in America has been the Baptists.
At times in the 17th and 18th centuries, Baptists were often alone as they sought to ensure their rights to practice their beliefs during struggles against the government and other religions. And disputes between faith groups surfaced in later generations over the role of religion in education and other public arenas.
"Now we are finding ourselves with a vast coalition of people who all agree that religious liberty belongs to all," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "It would have shocked my grandfather’s generation to see Southern Baptists and Catholics in agreement and working together on religious liberty."
He said he has learned a lot from Catholic leadership on engaging the congregations in the cause, citing the Catholic Church's annual Fortnight of Freedom, where congregations throughout the country pray and hold other events stressing the importance of religious liberty during a two-week period leading up to the Fourth of July holiday.
"Don’t be surprised at all if you see evangelicals and others doing similar things in our churches next year or in years to come," Moore said.
Shortly after Moore took the helm at the ERLC, he and Catholic Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who heads religious liberty efforts for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released an open letter protesting the contraception mandate's threat to conscience. The letter was signed, too, by Orthodox Christian and Jewish leaders and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Also signing it was the LDS Church's Presiding Bishop Gary Stevenson.
The Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have independent efforts to get information on religious liberty and other social issues out to their members through the Internet, social media, email and other means.
Elder Clayton explained the videos and social media are designed to give users an overview of religious liberty to help them recognize and speak out against threats to their freedom of conscience that may arise in their local communities, state legislatures or nationally.
The Facebook page "Support Religious Freedom" is intended to be a place where people can converse and share information and insights on the topic.
"We don’t want them to feel like they need to sit back and wait and see if someone in Salt Lake is going to tell them what to do," Elder Clayton said. "We’re not going to tell them, but we are certainly going to ask them to become involved. We invite them to do it because it’s extremely important that the citizens of this country stand up and protect the freedoms that they enjoy."
Faith communities rallying their congregants is a key element for advocacy groups that are championing religious liberty as a policy issue or at the ballot box.
"We've taken religious freedom for granted for so long that many Americans don’t recognize the threats that are existing," said Brian Walsh, executive director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s new American Religious Freedom program. "So faith leaders have an important role in helping people understand that religious freedom is absolutely necessary for members of that faith community to be able to act upon their beliefs and raise their children according to their beliefs without fear of government reprisals."
Walsh's program is working on establishing religious freedom caucuses in every state legislature as well as provide information on how to identify issues of religious conscience, exercise and worship and address them through policy. He explained that efforts to work with state lawmakers stem from requests by faith communities on how they can have better protections for religious freedom in their state.
"It’s in our DNA to be a platform that brings the voices of different faith communities back into the discussion," he said. "Advocating for religious freedom is not a partisan issue. It is a structural protection that ensures all Americans, regardless of what their faith may be, are granted the full set of privileges, immunities and rights that every other citizen has."
Other advocacy groups deal with religious liberty on a strictly political level, however.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition works with Christian and Jewish congregations to register and educate voters on issues before they cast their ballots for candidates who represent their concerns.
"We do the grass roots first, then the public policy follows," said Executive Director Gary Marx.
He explained that religious liberty is unique in that it ties into other issues and crosses over the liberal and conservative political divide.
"It is almost unprecedented in the scope in which this fight over religious freedom impacts culture in the long term. It's much bigger than (abortion)," he said, referring to another hot-button topic that can energize an electorate. "In this case, we never find a one-issue voter on religious liberty because there is never just one issue involved."
Elder Clayton said freedom of conscience touches believers and nonbelievers alike and is not a partisan issue for the LDS Church, which takes a neutral stance on party politics.
"We don’t think in those terms," he said. "We look at the issues of preserving religious freedom for ourselves and for our children and our neighbors and think about it topically rather than on a partisan basis."