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Madeline Mortensen
Elder L. Whitney Clayton, senior president of the Presidency of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks at the BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review, Wednesday, June 20, 2018.

PROVO — A high-ranking LDS Church leader insisted Wednesday that religious identity deserves the same legal and social protections being afforded to racial, gender and sexual identities.

"Too often, secular elites and government officials focus so much on certain favored identities, such as race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, that they miss the importance of religion as a profound source of identity," said Elder L. Whitney Clayton, senior president of the Presidency of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Just as society has increasingly understood that other identities should not be hid from the public view, society also must recognize the same for religious identity," he added.

Elder Clayton received a standing ovation from 443 people in the Pardoe Theater at Brigham Young University's Harris Fine Arts Center after he delivered the opening keynote address for "Religious Freedom and the Common Good," the annual religious freedom review sponsored by the the school's International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

Madeline Mortensen
Elder L. Whitney Clayton, senior president of the Presidency of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks at the BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review, Wednesday, June 20, 2018.

He expressed concern that some Americans now consider religious beliefs "quaint anachronisms" that society should discard or a simple choice that people should set aside.

"This view is profoundly naive," Elder Clayton said. "It fails to account for the fact that for tens of millions of Americans, faith and religious conviction are the most powerful and defining sources of personal and family identity in their lives. … Their faith is marrow to the very bones of who and what they are. The failure to understand this (discounts) the importance of religious freedom to allow people to live out their core identity in dignity and peace."

He also said he was alarmed that some are pressing people of faith to abandon their beliefs or keep them to themselves.

"One cannot check religious identity at the church or synagogue exit or the door of one's home any more than one can check their race or ethnicity. Religious identity cannot be compartmentalized and stuffed into a box labeled 'private.'"

Wednesday's conference sessions included workshops on religious freedom issues facing Muslims, communicating about the issue with millennials and Religious Freedom 101 for journalists.

Another breakout session featured attorneys from different faiths describing recent legal developments. They reviewed more than two dozen recent and pending cases, including one of a woman ordered by police to stop praying in her own home. They also expressed deep concern about the recent Canadian ruling that a Christian law school could not keep its certification and enforce its religious beliefs on marriage.

"If this path continues, then we will see things like what we saw in Canada, which is basically people being told, 'You're not allowed to participate in government, hold a bar license, hold a medical license, be a counselor, a social worker'" unless you conform, said Walter Weber, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.

Elder Clayton spoke with emotion about two of his ancestors, 19th-century pioneers whose sacrifices on the Mormon Trail west forged what he called a unique LDS identity. He said that identity shapes the church's efforts to inspire respect for "a human dignity that requires appropriate accommodation for the many ways human identity finds expression."

He said referring to religious belief as a simple choice demeans it and makes it harder for believers and nonbelievers to connect.

"My point is that misconstruing religious faith as a mere choice or preference, as something that can be adopted and discarded at will, radically misconceives the nature of religion in the lives of millions of faithful people. ... It reduces a way of life and a state of being to a pastime. It takes an identity that for millions is vastly more important and profound than race, color, ethnic origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, profession, wealth and so on and dismisses it as trivial or something to grow out of, like a childhood belief in Santa Claus."

Elder Clayton practiced law for 23 years before he became an LDS general authority in 2001. He joined the Presidency of the Seventy in 2008. He became the group's senior president in 2015.

"If you have concluded that certain favored classes deserve special legal protections and accommodations but that people of faith do not because they have chosen their beliefs and can just as easily unchoose them, I would ask you to reconsider," he said.

"If you believe public and private institutions should credit the dignitary claims of racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities, then please consider that many of the same reasons for doing so apply with equal or greater force to the dignitary claims of religious believers. If you believe that taking constitutional and human rights seriously requires social respect and legal safeguards for people to live out their core identities openly as equal participants in our communities and nation, then I hope that same conviction also extends to religious people and their core beliefs."

Elder Clayton said his ancestors’ experiences of persecution, including living under an extermination order, created a sensitivity of legal infringements on the rights of others. He said the LDS Church’s approach to legal rights differs from some other Christian faiths.

The LDS Church has openly supported LGBT rights in employment and housing. For example, it backed the 2015 passsage of a Utah bill that was hailed as a historic compromise that provided new protections for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people while reaffirming religious rights.

"I believe that no democratic government that claims to value personal dignity and human rights can ignore the moral imperative to respect the fundamental right to freely, openly and peacefully exercise one's religion," Elder Clayton said.

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He said people on all sides have hard work to do to find common ground and "generous, even loving accommodations for those whose beliefs, personal needs and lives are different from our own."

There will be challenges and tense moments along the way, he said, but added he hoped the secular and religious Americans will "have big enough hearts, broad enough minds and strong enough wills to forge hard the compromises that will allow all of us, whatever our identities, to live together in dignity, respect and peace."