Under the direction of Thomas S. Monson, Mormon prophet, Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons, spoke at Chapman College School of Law in California recently. His topic was religious freedom and his speech was a plea for people of all faiths to unite in protecting the freedom of religion promised to all Americans in the Constitution. He explained that this did not require a unifying of doctrine or any need to agree on doctrine. It is entirely about protecting the collective rights of all people of faith to practice that faith, whatever it is. “What unites us in religion is far more important than what divides us in the capacity to speak up for religious freedom.”Because many of the earliest European settlers in this country came to escape England’s official state religion, the founding fathers wanted to make sure the government here would never choose one religion over another. This is the reason for the wording in the Constitution, which does not mention separation of church and state, but instead focuses on prohibiting the establishment of an official religion or prohibiting the practice of religion.
The history of religious freedom is long and fascinating, but it can particularly helpful to look at how that freedom came to be in our Bill of Rights. As Elder Oaks noted in his speech, it is the very first freedom promised and therefore was clearly considered the most important.
At the time James Madison was trying to decide what rights we needed in the Bill of Rights, five state constitutions permitted the establishment of official religions, demonstrating the need for a constitutional requirement of freedom. A great deal of time was spent by Madison and by the committee that edited the proposals choosing the order of the amendments. This demonstrates that there was a purpose to the order and that they were not randomly listed. The first amendment listed was the most important. The very first amendment recommended by the select committee was worded in this way, although it was altered later. However, the original wording demonstrates without question the intent of the law:
No religion shall be established by law; nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.” Clearly, the law was aimed only at preventing an American equivalent of the Church of England.” Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire wanted even stronger language: “The Congress shall make no laws touching religion or the right of conscience.” The House accepted this proposal, but Roger Sherman thought there was no need for it because he said Congress didn’t have the power to make a religious establishment anyway. Madison considered the religious freedom amendment to be the one that mattered most of all because he’d spent so much of his career fighting against the desire for an official state religion. According to Richard Labunski, “While accepting Livermore’s changes, Madison said the amendment before the House meant that ‘Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” (Labunski, Richard E. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 223-24. Print.)
This gives us a very clear understanding of the original intent of the law, and this original intent is what Elder Oaks was addressing in his speech.
The free “exercise” of religion obviously involves both (1) the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and (2) the right to “exercise” or practice those beliefs without government restraint. However, in a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs the right of some to act upon their religious beliefs must be qualified by the government’s responsibility to further compelling government interests, such as the health and safety of all. Otherwise, for example, the government could not protect its citizens’ persons or properties from neighbors whose religious principles compelled practices that threatened others’ health or personal security. Government authorities have wrestled with this tension for many years, so we have considerable experience in working out the necessary accommodations.
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. The problems are not simple, and over the years the United States Supreme Court, which has the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the meaning of the lofty and general provisions of the Constitution, has struggled to identify principles that can guide its decisions when a law or regulation is claimed to violate someone’s free exercise of religion. As would be expected, many of these battles have involved government efforts to restrict the religious practices of small groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Recent experience suggests adding the example of Muslims.
Elder Oaks noted that a current debate involves whether or not religion is entitled to hold a more important place in our society’s laws than other rights. In recent times, that has been a primary focus and one that creates some of the strongest feelings in people on both sides.
Another important current debate over religious freedom concerns whether the guarantee of free exercise of religion gives one who acts on religious grounds greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to everyone by other provisions of the constitution, like freedom of speech. I, of course, maintain that unless religious freedom has a unique position we erase the significance of this separate provision in the First Amendment. Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief is not enough to satisfy the special guarantee of religious freedom in the United States Constitution. Religion must preserve its preferred status in our pluralistic society in order to make its unique contribution—its recognition and commitment to values that transcend the secular world.
Elder Oaks reminded listeners that religion has made very powerful and beneficial contributions to the history of the United States and other countries. He mentioned, for instance, the great humanitarian efforts carried out by churches. Most churches consider humanitarianism a cornerstone of their religion, even working together in multi-faith efforts. For instance, when the Mormons take food and emergency supplies into crisis areas, they often work with Muslims or Catholics to get everything in place. Mormons have sponsored neonatal rescue programs, clean water initiatives, wheelchair programs, vaccination programs, and many other services to help those in need around the world. They provide food and other necessities to their own members, so those people won’t have to depend on government resources. In addition, surplus food from this program is delivered to local food banks and the canneries that can the food is made available to other charities. Without the services the churches provide, many more people would suffer and many more government services would be necessary.
Historically significant movements began with sermons given in the pulpits on the Sabbath. Theodore Weld, an evangelical minister, formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 with William Lloyd Garrison. At Weld’s encouragement, students at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati organized an antislavery group, which later moved to Oberlin College. The Quakers were recognized leaders in the abolitionist movement. The Mennonites also fought against slavery.
Later in history, the fight for black civil rights also largely took place in the churches on Sunday mornings. The leaders of the movement were often ministers, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.
Today, many are trying to argue that churches should not be allowed to engage in the primary purpose of religion—to fight immorality in the world. Imagine if the laws had been read that way during the early days of our country leading up to the Civil War or during the Civil Rights movement? Someone must speak up for moral change or preservation and this is most often done through religion. America cannot afford to lose the primary source of morality.
Religion also strengthens our nation in the matter of honesty and integrity. Modern science and technology have given us remarkable devices, but we are frequently reminded that their operation in our economic system and the resulting prosperity of our nation rest on the honesty of the men and women who use them. Americans’ honesty is also reflected in our public servants’ remarkable resistance to official corruption. These standards and practices of honesty and integrity rest, ultimately, on our ideas of right and wrong, which, for most of us, are grounded in principles of religion and the teachings of religious leaders.
“Our society is not held together just by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by voluntary obedience to the unenforceable and by widespread adherence to unwritten norms of right or righteous behavior. Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to advocate and persuade such voluntary compliance by a large proportion of our citizens. Others, of course, have a moral compass not expressly grounded in religion. John Adams relied on all of these when he wisely observed that.”
“we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“ Even the agnostic Oxford-educated British journalist Melanie Phillips admitted that
“one does not have to be a religious believer to grasp that the core values of Western Civilization are grounded in religion, and to be concerned that the erosion of religious observance therefore undermines those values and the ‘secular ideas’ they reflect.”
Elder Oaks called for churches to unite in fighting against the current threats to religious freedom which are escalating. He pointed out this does not require unifying doctrine, only working together for their common interest:
Religious persons 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 in debates in the public square and the halls of justice. These are the rights of all citizens and they are also the rights of religious leaders and religious organizations In this circumstance, it is imperative that those of us who believe in God and in the reality of right and wrong unite more effectively to protect our religious freedom to preach and practice our faith in God and the principles of right and wrong He has established.
This proposal that we unite more effectively does not require any examination of the doctrinal differences among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, or even an identification of the many common elements of our beliefs. All that is necessary for unity and a broad coalition along the lines I am suggesting is a common belief that there is a right and wrong in human behavior that has 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. 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.
I am not proposing a resurrection of the so-called “moral majority,” which was identified with a particular religious group and a particular political party. Nor am I proposing an alliance or identification with any current political movement, tea party or other. I speak for a broader principle, non-partisan and, in its own focused objective, ecumenical.