Education Week: Understanding religious freedom


Religious freedom and civic virtue are essential for a successful society, according to William F. Atkin.

In recent years, the United States Supreme Court has seen cases involving religious freedom. Atkin brought his expertise as the associate general counsel-international for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a Tuesday session of Education Week to discuss these Supreme Court cases on religious freedom and why it is important.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

In January 2012, the court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations’ selection of religious leaders.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores

The court made a landmark decision regarding corporate law by allowing closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a regulation its owners religiously object to.

Steven Green, president of Hobby Lobby, was asked in an interview what he would do if he lost the case. He responded by saying he did not know what he would do, but he knew what he wouldn’t do.

Atkin referenced the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and said just as they were willing to sacrifice their lives to stand by their beliefs, Green was willing to sacrifice his business.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

Jack Phillips, a baker and owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to design and make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

This case deals with whether owners of public accommodations can refuse certain services based on the First Amendment claims of free speech and free exercise of religion. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled on narrow grounds that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not employ religious neutrality, violating Phillips’ rights to free exercise, and reversed the commission’s decision.

Atkin quoted something a journalist wrote on the case: “Jack is in the crosshairs again for three reasons: first, because certain Colorado officials have made the deliberate choice to target him; second, because the attorney who requested the cake made the deliberate choice to request a custom cake with a message that Jack could not in good conscience design; and third, because, as a society, we have failed to collectively stand and declare ‘enough!'”

Even though they were criticized, each of these men stood by their beliefs, Atkin said. 

He then shared a quote by Elder D. Todd Christofferson: “What can we do to cultivate a society where religion is respected and the rule of law remains a reality? I believe that it is the ‘small and simple things’ that matter most. We must live by the truths that we profess. We must be better husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. We must be kinder neighbors and coworkers. We must be better informed about the world around us and take a more active role in our communities as citizens. We must teach principles of gospel living to our children. And we must defend what is right — including freedom of religion and the rule of law.”

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