What do we mean when we talk about religious freedom?
At its most basic, religious freedom means the right to choose, change, declare, and act upon your faith. It includes freedom to worship but is much more than that. It’s the right to “exercise” or live your religion without interference from government or others, except when necessary to protect health and safety. It includes the right of like-minded individuals to form religious organizations that govern their own affairs.
Learn more about what religious freedom means and how it’s sometimes viewed in society.
Is religious freedom really threatened, and can I really make a difference?
Did you know that since 2008, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have delivered over 25 talks on religious freedom? Nine of them were given in 2015 alone. They’ve spoken in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, Mexico, and more to talk about what religious freedom means, the threats we face if it’s lost, and why it’s so important for people everywhere. The large number of addresses on this topic seems to say something of its importance. The Apostles wouldn’t speak on the subject if they didn’t think we could—and should—make a difference.
Religious freedom is already threatened in many areas:
People have been fired from important positions for expressing their religious beliefs in favor of traditional marriage.
The ability of religious parents to influence how their children in public schools are taught about sensitive sexual matters is being challenged.
Religious schools with faith-based honor codes requiring chastity and fidelity are being threatened with possible loss of accreditation and denial of student aid and research contracts.
There’s an active effort to discipline or silence some professionals because of their religious beliefs and speech about marriage, family, gender, and sexuality.
A strong movement has arisen to repeal or severely weaken the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a key United States federal law protecting religious freedom.
Prominent voices now want to deny churches tax-exempt status.
Government has tried to force religious owners of businesses and even Catholic nuns to provide insurance coverage for drugs they believe cause abortions or are immoral.
These are just a few examples of the threats religious freedom faces. And they’re part of the reason why it’s important for us to take a stand to protect religious freedom.
Learn 10 simple ways you can help protect religious freedom in your community.
How can religious freedom in the United States be threatened when it’s already protected in the First Amendment?
There’s no question that the First Amendment protects religious freedom in important ways in the United States. For example:
Government can’t establish an official church or favor one church over another.
Government cannot discriminate against religious believers. All people have a fundamental right to believe, worship, and exercise their religious beliefs as they wish, so long as it doesn’t harm the health and safety of others.
Individuals can gather together with other believers to form churches.
Churches have a right to conduct their internal affairs without government interference.
Government must sometimes provide special accommodations to religion.
Government can listen to all voices—including religious voices—when making policy.
In a world where more than 75 percent of people live in countries with significant restrictions on religious freedom, Americans are fortunate indeed (see Pew Research Center, “Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities,” Feb. 26, 2015). But the First Amendment doesn’t protect all religious rights. Many religious freedoms are protected by ordinary laws. Unfortunately, some in government and advocacy groups are working hard to reduce legal protections for religious freedom. And we know from Church history that legal protections alone—even when written into the Constitution—aren’t always enough. Law follows culture. We need a culture that respects religion and religious freedom. The challenge is that as American society becomes more and more secular, fewer and fewer people see religion as important and worth protecting. So they reinterpret it as merely the “freedom to worship” or give other emerging rights greater priority. That’s the threat.
Learn more about what’s at risk with religious freedom.
Isn’t religious freedom really about forcing others to live the way we want them to?
No. Remember that religious freedom is not about forcing anyone to do anything. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson has said, religious freedom is important precisely because it gives everyone—religious or not—the “space to determine for ourselves what we think and believe” (“A Celebration of Religious Freedom,” interfaith address in São Paulo, Brazil, Apr. 29, 2015). It protects those of all faiths and no faith, not just our faith. We’re at our best as a society when we have a free and open exchange of ideas, something that can only happen when we honor our differences.
What should we do when protecting our rights seems to conflict with rights that others say are important to them?
It’s important to acknowledge that having different beliefs doesn’t mean ignoring the rights of others—in fact, it shouldn’t. Protecting religious freedom means protecting the rights of people with differing beliefs. That’s why everyone—even those who aren’t religious—has a stake in protecting religious freedom.
When conflicts arise, most often people of good will can find practical solutions to accommodate diverse needs. Remember that we’re seeking a balance for all groups rather than total victory for one group at the expense of others. While religious liberty is our first freedom, we need to focus on creating a space where everyone is free to act upon their core beliefs and values so long as they aren’t harming the health or safety of others. That’s fairness for all. We focus on shared values, discover where we agree, and then find solutions that don’t force any group to act in a way that goes against its core beliefs. (See, for example, the compromise from Utah House Bill 296.)
Learn more about how religious freedom relates to other rights.
Isn’t protecting religious freedom just an excuse for discrimination?
No, religious freedom is not about discrimination. Religious freedom is about allowing people to freely express and live their religious beliefs. That’s why the Church has been concerned about religious freedom since as far back as the 1830s, including when they were driven from state to state and eventually settled in Utah so they could act on their religious beliefs. Conflicts with religious freedom often occur when government tries to force religious people or religious organizations to do things against their faith.
As Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught: “A robust freedom is not merely what political philosophers have referred to as the ‘negative’ freedom to be left alone, however important that may be. Rather, it is a much richer ‘positive’ freedom—the freedom to live one’s religion or belief in a legal, political, and social environment that is tolerant, respectful, and accommodating of diverse beliefs” (“A Celebration of Religious Freedom,” interfaith address in São Paulo, Brazil, Apr. 29, 2015).
How does religious freedom relate to debates about contraception or abortion?
Debates on social policies often pit people with strong opinions against each other. That’s especially true when policies touch on questions of morality. One example is the United States federal government’s directive requiring organizations that provide health care insurance to their employees to include coverage for contraceptives. Some faith-based organizations feel that providing that coverage violates their religious beliefs. In these difficult situations, religious freedom dictates that government finds ways to accommodate the beliefs of religious people and institutions. On the issue of abortion, no one should be required to perform or assist with an abortion against his or her religious beliefs.
See what the Church says about birth control and abortion.
When we look at the harm being done by others in the name of religion, shouldn’t we be talking about limiting religious freedom and not protecting it?
No. While some bad people masquerade in the name of religion, that’s no reason to abandon religious freedom—just like bad speech is no reason to abandon freedom of speech. A host of studies show the value of religion to society. What’s more, religious freedom isn’t only for religious people. It protects all of us by giving everyone—religious or not—room to determine for ourselves what we think and believe, and then to live according to our core beliefs. That’s the essence of our democracy.
Why should religious views be part of public policy debates?
Everyone’s voice should be heard. Every policy choice is based upon a set of moral reasoning—an idea of right and wrong—whether those reasons are labeled as religious or secular. Interestingly, many secular arguments have religious roots, including the most basic assumptions about theft, deception, and violence. So the claim that “we shouldn’t legislate morality” doesn’t make a lot of sense. What people who make that claim are really saying is that they don’t want everyone’s assumptions about right and wrong to be part of the discussion. Rather, they just want the reasons that match their opinions. While we shouldn’t expect that beliefs based upon religious principles be automatically accepted or given preferential status, we should expect that they be examined on their merits. Neither religious nor secular voices should be silenced.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught: “Everyone has a right to be heard—‘to compete’—in the marketplaces of ideas and in influencing governmental decisions. To silence one voice potentially leads to silencing all others. Religious voices are at least as deserving of being heard as any others. …
“… If you’re a person of faith, you have a critical contribution to make to our country and society. Public discussions about the common good are enriched by men and women like you who routinely put duty above convenience and conscience above personal advantage. And don’t be intimidated by those who claim that you are imposing your religious beliefs on others. In a pluralistic society, to promote one’s values for the good of society is not imposing them on others—it is putting them forward for consideration along with all others. Societies will choose and decide. Someone’s values prevail in the end, and all of us have the right—and duty—to argue for what we believe will best serve the need of the people and most benefit the common good. Without you, our political and social debates will lack the richness and insights needed to make wise decisions, and our nation and communities will suffer.
“… I want you to remember … that the religious voice is vitally important to our country—both to society and to wise government” (“Religious Freedom—A Cherished Heritage to Defend,” Freedom Festival Patriotic Service, June 26, 2016).
What can I do to protect religious freedom?
First, learn more about religious freedom. Second, get involved in community efforts to protect it. Protecting religious freedom means speaking up so that all people have the right to live according to what really matters to them. Speak up for religious freedom in your professional, business, educational, and community organizations. Let your legislators know you care about the issue. Often, your best chance to defend religious freedom will simply be to participate in conversations with friends and coworkers. Third, follow Christ’s example by being kind, respectful, and civil to everyone, regardless of their choices. Finally, and most importantly, live your religion. As you seek to be an example of what you believe, others will have greater respect for you and your beliefs.
Learn four ways Elder Robert D. Hales says we can—and must—protect religious freedom.
Read what Church leaders have taught about religious freedom.
Won’t people call me a bigot if I don’t support their beliefs?
The truth is, they might. But your actions can show them you’re not. It’s important to understand what a bigot is: someone who is hateful and intolerant toward those who don’t share their beliefs. Staying true to your beliefs doesn’t mean you’re hateful to those who don’t believe like you do, and you can demonstrate that through kind interactions with everyone.
As you show your desire to understand others’ opinions, even if those opinions don’t align with your own, you invite the same respect you desire. Some people may not want to understand your perspective or see past the labels they’ve given you. Continue to show them love and respect. That’s the best way to help them see, often over time, that you’re not a hater just because you choose to stick to your beliefs.
Watch an example of how you might respond when someone calls you a bigot.
What if I don’t want to talk about difficult topics because I don’t understand them?
Sometimes, it might seem easier to avoid topics you don’t understand. But God wants us to seek understanding, especially when it comes to confusing issues. As you pray, study, and ponder the tough topics and discuss them with people you trust, you will be better prepared to discuss them in an open, honest way.
Read about seven keys to successful conversations.
Learn how to have respectful conversations with people of different beliefs.
How can I show love to those who don’t share my beliefs?
You can disagree without being disagreeable. You can sincerely try to understand their beliefs. And you can be friends despite even fundamental differences in belief. When you’re kind, respectful, and civil, everyone wins. And that includes not only expressing kindness, respect, and understanding but also expecting and receiving it in return—it’s about mutual respect.
Learn more about developing mutual respect with others.
See what Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught about loving those who have different beliefs.
How can we all come together if we have such different views?
If we want to help society move forward, we need to learn how to work together despite our differences. As always, Jesus set the perfect example. He never forced anyone to keep His commandments. He simply shared His truth and invited others to follow Him. Just as the Savior allowed everyone to make their own choices, we need to seek to understand others’ beliefs and allow them to live as they believe, as long as they don’t harm the health or safety of others.
In political matters, we can focus on an approach that encourages “fairness for all” and find ways to come together on common ground without going against our beliefs (see, for example, how Utah House Bill 296 was passed). When we discover shared values and seek to protect everyone, we show that we follow Christ.
Learn more about working together when rights seem to conflict.
Learn more about having respectful conversations with people of different beliefs.