Religious freedom conference addresses handling religious speech with associates, in public schools

Ari Davis
Michael D. Frandsen, Director of Public Affairs for the LDS Church, presents a workshop session at the Religious Freedom Annual Review on July 7 in the BYU Conference Center. Frandsen spoke about how people of faith can most effectively discuss religious freedom. (Maddi Driggs)

LDS Church Director of Public Affairs Michael D. Frandsen and BYU professor Scott E. Ferrin presented workshops discussing contemporary issues relating to religious speech at the Religious Freedom Annual Review on July 7-8 in the BYU Conference Center.

Frandsen’s workshop session entitled “How Can I Discuss Religious Freedom Effectively?” gave several suggestions of ways in which people of faith can most effectively engage in religious conversations with others, particularly with those who disagree with them.

“Talking about religious freedom can be hard, partly as a result of tradition,” Frandsen said. “For whatever reason, there’s an unspoken rule that in polite society, you shy away from talking about religion or politics for fear of unnecessarily offending someone.”

One of the challenges that currently exists when talking about religious freedom is society’s often “situational” view of religious freedom, according to Frandsen. He said people tend to apply religious freedom unevenly across religious groups based on their preconceptions of different religions.

“If you think about it, religious freedom is a pretty cheap freedom if it only applies to people or groups who are popular,” Frandsen said. “After all, it’s not the popular groups that need religious freedom protections.”

Religious people must be prepared to answer certain religious questions in order to discuss religious freedom effectively, according to Frandsen. He said questions regarding the LDS Church’s stance opposing same-sex marriage is representative of most other common challenges to religious freedom.

Frandsen explained that effective answers to these questions include explaining that the church supports the idea that families led by a father and mother are the best environment for raising children and that “legalizing same-sex marriage substantially reduces space available to people of faith to have traditional beliefs about marriage and family.”

Frandsen presented a series of videos to illustrate examples of both effective and ineffective ways for people of faith to engage in religious conversation. The series shows a situation in which a fictitious Mormon college student, Samantha, argumentatively defends her religious beliefs in class one day, seeks guidance from her bishop and later readdresses the situation by seeking to discuss her beliefs more effectively
with her classmate, Miki.

Frandsen identified a few lessons from the video. He said Samantha was most successful when she spoke with Miki one-on-one about her religious beliefs, sought to understand Miki’s point of view and accepted that understanding one another is a process that rarely occurs at one event.

“Whenever there’s controversy and disagreement, the best way to proceed is with love, respect and understanding while never abandoning the conviction of truth that we hold in our hearts,” Frandsen said.

BYU professor Scott E. Ferrin presented a workshop at the Religious Freedom Conference on July 8 about the religious rights of parents and students in public schools. (Sarah Averett)

Scott E. Ferrin, an associate professor with the BYU Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations, also presented a workshop session that presented issues of religious speech regarding public schools.

Ferrin’s workshop, entitled “Religion in Public Schools: What Rights Do Parents and Students Have?”, explained that teachers and students have the right to talk about religion within the curriculum if a religious topic is raised during a class discussion. He said an example of this would be a student who gave a religious answer to a question asked in class such as, “Who is your hero?”

“If you ask that question, a kid gets to say it’s Christ, Muhammed, or someone else,” Ferrin said. “If you don’t ask that question, I’m not sure the kid gets to interject into and take over the curriculum.”

Outside the class discussion, students are allowed to discuss religious topics as long as these religious conversations do not harass other students, according to Ferrin.

“If the kids are doing it away from the curriculum and in a way that’s not harassing, they have the right to free exercise of religion,” Ferrin said. “They have the right to invite people and warn their neighbor; all kinds of things that the state can’t come in and stop.”

Ferrin explained that under the Equal Access Act of 1984, students also have the right to hold religious group meetings in public high schools where there are non-curriculum clubs. This law requires public high schools that have any non-curriculum clubs to allow the creation of all other non-curriculum clubs as long as the clubs are not dangerous and do not exclude other students.

These clubs must also meet other requirements, which include that they must be led by students and supervised by an adult who cannot be forced to attend club meetings if it is against the adult’s conscience, according to Ferrin. This allows the existence of non-curriculum clubs including those based on religious and LGBT rights at some public high schools.

“A school can’t, just because they’re religious or just because they’re supporting gay or lesbian students, exclude clubs if it has other non-curriculum related clubs,” Ferrin said.

Ferrin also talked about religious freedom as it relates to religious minorities in Utah. He expounded the example of the Rachel Bauchman case of 1997, in which a Jewish high school student in Salt Lake City got a legal injunction that prevented a religious song from being sung at her graduation.

The opposing side later won the trial, but they lost the injunction, reasoning that attendance is not required for graduates to receive their high school diplomas and that Bauchman could choose not to attend the graduation ceremony if the song was sung.

“We’re now in a forum where whatever what we do, we can’t say, ‘Well, you don’t have to be here,’” Ferrin said. “We don’t do that to religious minorities under the Constitution.”

Ferrin explained in his workshop session that he is troubled by some research that has shown that religion is the cause of bigotry and anti-egalitarian and anti-social behavior in society. He said he believes this research is flawed because those who conduct the research are often ignorant of religious matters, especially those regarding religious minorities.

“We should really spend a lot of time helping to find and celebrate good research about the positive effects of religion,” Ferrin said. “I think the right solution is not less religion; it’s more, more deeply understood in so many ways, including with religious minorities.”

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