Education Week: Challenges to religious freedom and what can be done

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Elizabeth A. Clark, associate director for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, and Matthew K. Richards, a Salt Lake lawyer, discussed the challenges facing religious freedom during a BYU Education Week session on Thursday, August 22. (Emma Benson)

During a BYU Education Week session on Thursday, August 22, Elizabeth A. Clark, associate director for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, and Matthew K. Richards, a Salt Lake lawyer, discussed the current challenges that religious freedom faces.

Richards opened by defining religious freedom as what protects the right to hold beliefs, express them and act upon them.

Richards said religious freedom entails a whole host of other rights: the right to freedom, the right to worship, the right to meet together, the right to self-government, the right to communicate with members, the right to legal entity status and action, the right to declare religious beliefs publicly, the right to travel freely, the right to full participation in society and the right to freedom from retaliation.

Richards quoted an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he said has been widely adopted by most countries in the world.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

But Richards said 39% of countries have high or very high restrictions on religious freedom — which adds up to 77% of the world’s largest populations, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Richards said a culture may be less accepting of religious freedom than a government.

This graph from the Pew Research Center shows the levels of government restrictions and social hostilities on religion in the world’s 25 most populous countries from 2007 to 2014. (Pew Research Center)

Clark then discussed challenges facing religious freedom in the United States. She noted three sources from which these challenges come: Cultural views on religion, cultural views on sexuality and reactions to security threats.

Clark said ignorance is one of the problems surrounding cultural views on religion. One example she provided is that school administrators sometimes want to schedule activities on Saturday without realizing that Saturday is the Sabbath for some religious practitioners. “That’s an inadvertent kind of infringement on people’s religious freedom.”

She brought up another example where a woman wearing a headscarf for religious reasons applying for a job might not be hired because her clothing violates their headgear rule.

Clark quoted President Russell M. Nelson, who said, “Problems abound in this world because it is populated by imperfect people. Their objectives and desires are heavily influenced by their faith or lack of it. Many put other priorities ahead of God. Some challenge the relevance of religion in modern life. As in every age, so today there are those who mock or decry the free exercise of religion. Some even blame religion for any number of the world’s ills.”

He continued, “Admittedly, there have been times when atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. But living the Lord’s pure religion, which means striving to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, is a way of life and a daily commitment that will provide divine guidance. As you practice your religion, you are exercising your faith. You are letting your faith show.”

“We can change the culture of the country we live in by how we live, by how we treat people,” Clark said.

Clark said another challenge “on the horizon” for religious freedom is changing cultural views on sexuality. Religious freedom is often seen as anti-LGBTQ, Clark said.

Clark pointed out a study Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf referred to in a General Conference session. The study focused on conflict resolution between two at-odds groups. Clark said the study found both groups thought their own group was motivated by love and their rival group was motivated by hate.

“I think it’s worth remembering that while as people of faith, we may think our religious beliefs and know our religious beliefs are coming from a position of love, others see those as stemming from hate, just as we may see their views towards us as stemming from hate, which they see it as an effort to love and protect people they care about,” Clark said.

Clark referred to guidance leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have given Church members. These suggestions include encouraging members to be examples and to reach out to others with love.

Clark then referred to the statement the First Presidency released around the time of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision.

“The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility— even when we disagree. We affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same‐sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. Indeed, the Church has advocated for rights of same‐sex couples in matters of hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment and probate, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.”

Clark said the third main challenge to religious freedom is societal reactions to security threats. She noted the challenge of living in a modern world shaped by acts of terrorism. “We have a tendency to fear the unknown,” she said.

Clark said many people may feel like they are more likely to die in a plane crash than a car crash, but the chances of dying in a car are far greater. It’s the lack of control that leads people to fear more than they normally would, Clark said.

“So security discussions, although they’re real and important, they do sometimes become about fear and not about rational thought, which makes it easy to invent prejudice,” she said.

Clark then addressed the priorities for religious freedom — what to focus on to fix these problems.

She quoted Presidents Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks who each encouraged respect despite cultural or religious differences.

“We’re all American citizens here together; we need to find a way to work together in spite of our differences,” Clark said.

Clark assured that everyone can be part of the solution.

“This can be a very daunting topic, but there are reasons for hope,” she said.

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