Education Week: Religious freedom explained in simple terms

Lawyer Alexander Dushku explains religious freedom during his Education Week speech. (BYU Continuing Education)

Lawyer Alexander Dushku explained religious freedom for those who do not practice law during his Education Week speech and gave examples of many court cases relating to religious freedom.

Religious freedom is a topic widely spoken of, especially in courtrooms. Dushku explained that each person holds the right to believe anything about God. He further explained that the right also includes the ability to express beliefs “openly without fear of persecution or being denied the equal rights of citizenship.”

He said religious freedom is a core part of society. “In a modern society, religious freedom includes a right not to be discriminated against in employment, housing, and other basic services on the basis of religion. Also, no denial of the right to have a business or occupation based on your religion.”

He explained that limitations to the right are also vital. “Limits on religious activities are appropriate where necessary to protect life, property, health and safety, or to prevent real harm to others,” Dushku said.

An example he shared of a limitation is a human sacrifice performed by an Aztec priest. This cannot be performed in the United States because it is not protected under the First Amendment.

Restrictions to religious freedom don’t always correlate to rights being suppressed. Dushku said religious freedom doesn’t mean people can disregard all that may be required by the government, but rather that everyone can participate freely in democratic processes.

In the context of business, Dushku said there are many rights to exercise religion, but the rights are not absolute. “We don’t have an exemption from living in a society that disagrees with us,” he said.

Relating to the Supreme Court, Dushku provided context behind court cases involving religious freedom. Examples include Bostock v. Clayton County, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak during 2020.

In one specific case, religious freedom came in conflict with civil rights. Dushku discussed the 2018 case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Jack Phillips is a Christian who bakes cakes for events; however, he doesn’t bake cakes when he believes the event will violate his religious beliefs.

The case was brought into the public eye because Phillips declined to bake a cake for a gay couple. The couple felt discriminated against and took the shop to court under Colorado’s anti-discrimination law and won at the state level. The case then went to the Supreme Court level and the court ruled in favor of Phillips. This ruling was the cause of unfair treatment and rude comments against Phillip’s religion made by the Civil Rights Commission. Dushku questioned what the outcome might have been if the Commission hadn’t treated Phillips and his religion so poorly.

Quoting a talk by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in 2016, Dushku said the voice of members of the Church is vital, and people of faith can’t back down with fear of being silenced. He explained that everyone has a right to have their opinions matter.

“You have the right to freely worship and speak and act based on your religious beliefs,” Dushku said.

He encouraged those listening to participate in the process and let their voices be heard. “As they see our good works, even those who don’t understand us or believe in our faith, or why it’s so important to us, they will nevertheless desire to listen and to understand. As we do so, we will be defending religious freedom,” Dushku said.

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