What Mormons mean by “religious freedom”

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religious freedomThis week BYU has been hosting a conference on religious freedom, and according to the Deseret News, the main item on the agenda has been the June 26 Supreme Court decision in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. (One speaker yesterday identified “at least twelve religious freedom grenades” with which the court has now attacked Americans’ liberties. Inflammatory rhetoric, anyone?)

A key issue at hand has been that of “public accommodations.” In other words, now that same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty states, what about daily life? Will private businesses and restaurants have a right to refuse service to LGBT people?

According to the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), retail stores, universities, recreational facilities and the like now have to serve all customers regardless of race or physical disability; will something like those laws be extended to LGBT Americans?

The LDS Church has lobbied hard for the right of conservative religious persons – like, say, those who are members of the LDS Church! – to refuse such accommodations in the name of “religious freedom,” even while it has also lobbied for LGBT persons to enjoy equal housing and employment rights under Utah state law.

I am not a legal expert, and I’m sure the public accommodation issues are complicated. But I would love for Mormons to think more carefully about what we mean by “religious freedom,” and why we have defaulted to that language.

And we have defaulted to it. So far in this decade, “religious freedom” has come up more than four times as often in General Conference as it did in the entire preceding decade.

What does “religious freedom” actually mean? Here is the definition according to the U.S. State Department:

State department religious freedom definitionThis definition points to “fairness for all,” as the name of BYU’s conference on religious freedom implies. Fairness for all should be our goal.

But the much narrower, fear-based definition of “religious freedom” that I keep seeing from LDS leaders and members alike — like the grenade-happy speaker quoted above — sounds more like “upholding the privilege of religious conservatives to oppose homosexuality wherever possible.”

Throwing around language about religious freedom means Mormons had better be prepared to cast a much, much wider net than protecting one minority religion (which, surprise, is ours!) on one issue in one nation.

I hope we are starting to do this. I was pleased to see, for example, that the BYU conference description mentioned a hypothetical scenario involving Islam: “For example, says Smith, an employee who is Muslim or Christian and wants to ask for time to pray during work or not to work on Sundays, can come to this conference and learn how and when to ask for those accommodations.”

But the quoted example is of a Muslim requesting permission to do something that a Mormon might also do – taking time off work for religious reasons. That could just as easily be us.

We’re not showing a commitment to religious freedom with examples like these; we’re reinforcing the rights of others when they also happen to be rights we desire for ourselves.

Where the rubber meets the road with religious freedom is when we are prepared to argue for other people’s religious practices when they’re not ones we necessarily agree with. And this is what I don’t see the LDS Church doing.

  • What if supporting “religious freedom” means standing behind offshoot polygamist groups whose religious identity revolves around plural marriage? Wouldn’t a robust commitment to religious freedom “for all” require protecting a minority religion in a tenet that is so fundamental to its self-definition?
  • What if supporting religious freedom means allowing Rastafarians to smoke marijuana as part of their ceremonies, or indigenous persons to use peyote, or Brazilian-Americans to drink hoasca? All three scenarios involve drugs that are illegal in most states.
  • What if supporting religious freedom means that you assert the right of your child’s Sikh teacher to come to school each day carrying a dagger and wearing a turban, as mandated by his religion?

I hope that when Mormons advocate for “religious freedom,” we’re not just using that as a code phrase for protecting our own small, relatively unpopular religion.

Time will tell how willing we are to think about, and champion, the religious freedom of groups that are far smaller and more disparaged than our own.



  • In 1992, Elder Dallin H. Oakes testified before a Congressional subcommittee, expressing the Church’s official support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The RFRA was a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith that provided no religious exemption for use of peyote. The full text of his remarks is here: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1992/07/news-of-the-church?lang=eng

    A key bit from the text: “I wish to point out, however, that most of the court cases involving government interference with religious liberty involve religious practices that appear out of the ordinary to many. By their nature, elected officials are unlikely to pass ordinances, statutes, or laws that interfere with large mainstream religions whose adherents possess significant political power at the ballot box. But political power or impact must not be the measure of which religious practices can be forbidden by law.”

  • Spot on analysis, Jana. I think you’re exactly right about what “religious freedom” appears to mean when brought up by Church leaders:

    “upholding the privilege of religious conservatives to oppose homosexuality wherever possible.”

    I like your idea of the Church moving to push for religious freedom defined more broadly, but given that the term appears to be a cloak for the only thing leaders are really interested in, I suspect that they would prefer to drop the term and keep fighting on only the narrow issue you’ve identified than to actually take on the broad issue of religious freedom.

  • Sean

    lds Corporate wordspeak defaulted to the use of “religious freedom” due in large part to their esteemed leader, Dallin H. Oaks.

    His use of the term is nothing but the inflammatory rhetoric of a “robustious periwig-pated fellow (who) tear(s) a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”

    or in simple terms, his words are the religious equivalent to political ‘sound bites’. which is equivalent to being a rhetoric salesman, which to take it further make him nothing more than a finely tuned instrument of Priestcraft.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Perhaps it’s time to take the discussion back to the basic principles we learned in preschool:

    “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

    How would Mormons feel if a group of activists wanted to make temple sealing illegal, or ridiculed Mormon marriages as “counterfeit”? How would Mormons feel if businesses and employers were free to discriminate against them on ideological (religious) grounds, reasoning that it is a “sin” to provide a business service to a “Mormon,” or for society to provide civil rights protections to Mormons?

    Like all people, Mormons want to be tolerated. They have a right to that expectation; we *all* have a right to that expectation. Mormons should embrace that ideal, and happily treat others as they want to be treated.

  • Porter

    The satanists have been excitedly seizing on the new religious freedom protections afforded under the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision to seek an exemption from Missouri’s 72-hour abortion waiting period on the grounds that the law violates their sincerely held beliefs about bodily autonomy. Would the LDS church support that? Strange bedfellows indeed!


  • Bobby

    So Jana what you’re saying is that the school held a conference on things that pertained to those that were likely to attend. Well there’s a news flash. Great work!

  • Tim

    The decision in Employment Division v. Smith, mentioned in the first comment here, was one of the biggest losses for religious freedom in the U.S. in the past 100 years.

    Interestingly enough, all five of the Supreme Court’s conservative members (at the time) voted in favor of the decision. The three dissents were made by three of the Supreme Court’s liberal members. The liberals actually supported increasing the amount of religious freedom, and the conservatives fought to restrict the amount of religious freedom. The decision was written (wait for it) by Justice Scalia.

  • Pingback: The Cultural Hall (A Mormon Show in podcast form) – Mormon News Report, 9-July-2015()

  • And an hour after the gay marriage decision, the ACLU announced that it had shifted its views 180 degrees on the RFRA, and would now fight it. True story.

  • Geoff – Aus

    A couple of weeks ago I made a comment in SS which offended one person, of the 30 or so in class, who went to the Bishop and complained.

    The Bishop invited me into his office and asked me never to say anything that might offend anyone else. Not to bear testimony except in the standard form, and if I couldn’t just to stay quiet.

    I later read The talk about freedom of religion given by Elder Hale in April conference, because the RS/ Priesthood were having it as the lesson at the time the Bishop was talking to me.

    Does freedom of religion apply to members of the church who are not conservatives?

  • “The LDS Church has lobbied hard for the right of conservative religious persons to refuse [retail and restaurant service to LGBT people] in the name of religious freedom.”

    Have they lobbied for anything of the kind, or are you just taking reading a dishonest newspaper? As you said, the church lobbies, and has lobbied for decades in my experience, for anti-discrimination laws in general, including those regarding sexual orientation and in housing. They’ve never said anything that would imply that restaurants should be allowed to refuse service to gay people! So why not give them the benefit of the doubt by reading their comments at face value? Why jump so quickly onto the bandwagon?

  • Members of the Church have been involved in defending religious freedom in all of the cases you mention except for the polygamy example.Gene Schaerr the attorney who is quoted in the article has actively litigated cases for a wide variety of faiths.

    Annually BYU Law school hosts a conference on international religious freedom and brings people from all over the world to discuss freedom issues in their various countries, including Muslim nations and countries with little to no church presence. This conference has been happening for almost two decades now and has the support of the first Presidency and quorum of the twelve.

    What exactly makes you believe that the church only focuses on religious freedom for conservative social issues?

  • Freedom that enslaves others can never be freedom. Freedom that excludes others can never be freedom. These twin truths create a paradox that we, as a society, must balance. If the law enslaves churches to marry same-sex couples (the conservative fear) then we are not free as they are free to marry outside our religion, thus maintaining their freedom as we do as well. Marriage is something we by from the state, and is thus accessible to all. Businesses do not have the same freedom as there may not be other options of free enterprise for minorities, the disabled, and the LGBT. they may not be able to barter for goods and services in the free market if they are enslaved to only shop at non-bigoted establishments. The market can only stay “free” with regulations in place to ensure they may shop freely, like the majority. They are still free to not buy from bigots, but they let their wallets chose not the business. But as Christians we should love and serve all. Sorry, cake makers!

  • Larry

    To be honest, I found the Smith decision to be fairly straight forward and one of the only intellectually honest ones written by Scalia. Religious freedom is not a license to ignore laws of general application with rational and secular purposes. It makes sense on many levels.

    The problem is that Scalia never held himself to the standards he set. He ignored his own words in subsequent decisions in order to further purely partisan ends. One gets the feeling he came to the right decision for the wrong reasons. Had Smith been some offshoot of Christianity, he might have ruled in the other direction.

    The RFRA was a badly written law at the time and its flaws are being shown in its subsequent abuse by people looking to promote religious based discrimination.

  • Larry

    “Have they lobbied for anything of the kind, or are you just taking reading a dishonest newspaper? ”

    All one had to do is look at the opposition to the Utah anti-discrimination law. It was all out there for people to find, if they were interested. That law is still a piece of junk, but one that manages to give the appearance of discouraging discrimination if not the full actuality of it.

  • Joel J Campbell

    I attended parts of the conference Ms. Riess refers to and I found she missed the tone and intent of the conference. Several of the speakers and panels talked about a much wider approach to religious liberty. It’s too bad Jana didn’t exercise a little due diligence and actually do what journalists are taugth to do, interview some people attending or speaking at the conference or, perish the thought, actually attend before throwing her own “grenades.” I’ve got several ideas for columns of LDS members from the conference reaching out to do exactly what Riess accuses Mormons of not doing. She missed the mark on this one.

  • lyle

    Jana: Your article is useful for pointing out that there is a conflict with how the “public,” and those members of the public who are “mormons” see “Religious Freedom” compared to academics and the LDS Church’s policies. On almost every other point, you are either incorrect or selectively cherry-picking language and actions to prove your predetermined point. It’s okay to say you are wrong, especially, when, as you point out, you are not a legal expert, or aware of what the LDS Church is actually advocating.

  • Ben in oakland

    That’s because scalia is actually not interested in religious freedom, he is interested in authoritarianism. You need only read his dissent in the Texas sodomy decision and the marriage decision to understand that.

  • Ben in oakland



    This is religious freedom as defined by religious conservatives, or at least, the hyper conservatives.

    Freedom of religion is for me. The freedom to follow my religion is for you.

  • Ben in oakland

    @ Colin

    The gay rights law in Utah intentionally excluded public accommodations. So, if you are a business,, you can discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and claim it is all about your sincere religious beliefs.

    It also allowed for discrimination in housing for precisely the people who are most likely to do so: small landlords, but not big landlords.

    The entirety of the Utah law was for one purpose: to look like they actually cared about anti-gay discrimination, while doing nothing whatsoever to discourage it.

  • Religious freedom, to some degree, may work for now. But there will come a time when the One to whom all worship is due will sit on His throne and rule over the earth.

  • Eimi Priddis

    I attended the conference referenced here, and I feel that the tone of the conference has been very much mischaracterized. For example, one of the best sessions was delivered by a member of a Lutheran church, a lawyer, who told about his involvement in the Hosanna-Tabor case a few years ago. Another of my favorite sessions was about the interreligious colloquium in Rome this past fall, discussing how members of many faiths–Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim, Mormon, etc.–have joined together to address issues regarding religious freedom. The overall tone of the conference was not militant in any way (note the word “unintentional” in the quote about grenades). In fact, one of the underlying motifs of the conference was how to balance religious freedom and LGBT rights.
    There will be clashes between religion and LGBT rights in the coming future, and the ability of both sides to refrain from militarizing the issue will determine if there will be “fairness for all.”

  • Pr Chris

    If any retailer today refuses service to LGBT people, he/she, is not only being stupid, but asking for legal trouble. There are many scenarios for two people of the same gender who are not LGBT coming into a restaurant or a hotel: As a young Navy Officer, I shared a trip to a new base with another Officer of the same gender; that way, we could split the driving and get there faster, and we had more time to look around before reporting for duty. One sister comes to visit her sister; they go on a “road trip”! (Remember High School grads going on a road trip around the US in the summer after HS?)

    My own recommendation is that if they want a room or a meal, make it so. Don’t make assumptions, and you’ll be better off. (And if your moral attitude might take offense…one important lesson I have learned is to not ask a question if you won’t potentially like the answer.)

    Pr Chris

  • Scott Roskelley

    George Reynolds believed that his religious convictions drove him to marry both Mary Ann and Amelia Jane. When the supreme court voted unanimously that the ban on polygamy was constitutional, George Q Cannon of the 12 said, “Let it be published to the four corners of the earth that in this land of liberty, the most blessed and glorious upon which the sun shines, the law is swiftly invoked to punish religion, but justice goes limping and blindfolded in pursuit of crime.” In 2015 the BYU law department would defend 100% the federal government in correcting the LDS church from it’s barbaric and sinful former “folk doctrines”. The federal government helped Utah by enforcing that article 3 where religious freedoms are guaranteed, included the “forever prohibited” sanction on polygamy. The unity, light, and inspiration which guided the Supreme court in 1878 to help move the church along in progress towards a more holy religious practice is evidence that God loves his church.

  • Dan the Mormon

    As a conservative Mormon I’d be a-ok with Rastafarian’s smoking marijuana or a Sikh child coming to school with a turban and a kirpan. I’d even be ok with FLDS members being allowed to legally practice polygamy if it is framed as a religious exemption. I’d also be ok with an atheist or evangelical baker refusing to bake a cake for an LDS temple wedding. We live in a religiously pluralistic society and that often means respecting beliefs that differ from ours. As long as it doesn’t negatively impact my health or safety, I think the law should grant as much freedom as possible to people who want to live by their religious beliefs.

    To make sure I am clear, I don’t mean that I want to legalize marijuana, weapons in school, or polygamy generally. I am saying that if people do these things as part of their religion there should be a way they should be able to be exempted from the law.

  • Daniel

    For some reason it is awful or shocking for LDS people to lobby for for things that are in their interest. And heaven forbid they use rhetoric … that is just going too far for me.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I reviewed your three “what-if questions. I’m good with all of them.

    I think that more freedom is better than less. There is a great desire among our fellow men and women to control each other’s choices. There is always a debate about what needs to be controlled and what not … but down one of those paths lies a regimented totalitarianism. Orwell and others warn of that compellingly. I wish we’d be more liberal in the classical sense toward how we deal with one another.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    Not quite a true story, Colin.

    I think you will find that in the early case the ACLU supported a Federal law designed to protect the practice of religion from interference by government.

    In the latter case, your supposed “180 degrees” change, the ACLU opposed a different, State, law which intended to use the guise, pretence and language of religion to legalize the private practice of invidious discrimination against customers in commercial transactions.

    After you look into it, you might want to revisit your “true story,” and in the interest of truth, which we both value, relabel it. “A lie” perhaps?

    Best wishes,


  • Get it Right

    I seriously question Jana Riess’ ability to write with any level of accuracy when she attributes her definition of “religious freedom” as coming from the “State Department” when it is actually from one of the foundational documents of the United Nations – the ICCPR. Since Jana seems to like language from official UN documents, I suggest she internalize this:

    “[E]veryone 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.” – UN Declaration of Human Rights (1945)

    The baker, the photographer, the florist are operating well within their human rights. Seems gays and their lobbyists (like Jana Reiss) figure they’re the only ones with said rights. It’s amazing to me how quickly gays have forgotten their mantra of “tolerance” and “live and let…

  • EG

    Redefining “family” allows the state to become the guardian. Karl Marx did the same thing.

    Welcome to Marxist Amerika!
    More Marxism to come.

  • Chris

    The one-sided perspective of this article is intellectually flawed and cheap. Does supporting religious freedom mean supporting religious groups’ rights to do things that are out of the ordinary? Yes, there is an aspect that would lend itself to that, I agree.

    Far more basic to the concept of religious freedom (and I find quoting a federal government view of religious freedom as your premise to be again, one-sided and logically flawed) is the freedom to believe your religion and act on those beliefs. If I believe that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God, and I do not want to support it in any way, you do infringe on my religious freedom to believe and practice my belief when you say I should support it or defend it. Religious beliefs among people are sometimes not compatible. In this case the best you can do is be tolerant, but not support. That is the position taken by the LDS church and the right one. They are spot-on correct on this one.

  • Larry

    Except with your examples, the Sikh, Rasta and even the polygamist are not using their religion as an excuse to harm others. The discriminatory store owner is pretending their religious belief gives them license to act in a malicious manner. All done to cause deliberate harm to customers by denying them goods and services normally available in general commerce. It has as much to do with religious freedom as human sacrifice.

    A pluralistic society still has ground rules. One is more likely to find something considered currently illegal as a religious exception if it does no harm to the public or demands others act in accordance with that faith. We do not hold our laws to whether they agree with religious views, but to whether they meet rational and secular purposes.

    There are rational and secular reasons for banning weapons in schools, upholding narcotics regulations and banning polygamy. There is none for permitting discrimination in public accommodations.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    It’s hard to imagine any comment more shallow, poorly informed and off-topic. Exactly none of the widely reported refusing-service cases recently involved hotel accomodations, nor were service providers making assumptions about sexual orientation or asking nosy questions. The cases involve explicit requests for the service provider’s participation in a same-sex marriage event. And there is every reason to think that the customers fully intended to unleash a firestorm of hostility on the poor service provider who would dare to decline service or even to comment (in the abstract) on the provider’s willingness to participate. All about as far from your “we want to share a room” example as it is possible to imagine.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Obviously freedom of religion applies to all members of the church. But that doesn’t seem to be what was going on. Please quote your actual comment. I’m guessing there is a reason why you’re being vague about what it is you actually said.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Forgive me please. After writing the above, I re-read the comment in context which I had failed to do properly before. The comment software in use here doesn’t allow me to go back to edit or delete my comment, so I can only write again to admit the mistake. I think in most instances it would indeed be foolish to make assumptions about the relationhship that exists, or doesn’t exist, between any two people (same sex or opposite sex) who enter a hotel, restaurant or even seek apartment style housing. I continue to think that the issue of making possibly mistaken assumptions isn’t at all where the real problem lies. But I do absolutely retract my earlier sharp comment.

  • Maddy

    “If I believe that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God, and I do not want to support it in any way, you do infringe on my religious freedom to believe and practice my belief when you say I should support it or defend it.”

    There lies the rub–the extent to which people define following religious commandments as supporting “sin.” But I wonder where one draws the line. Most/all of us would agree that forcing religious institutions–churches and clergy within those institutions to perform SSM–is not appropriate. But there is great disagreement about public accomodations–such as baking a cake for a SS wedding. I find it interesting however, that the LDS Church supports anti-discrimination laws in housing–which clearly could be and is construed as supporting “sinful” behavior.

  • Geoff – A

    During a discussion about being hurt by dishonesty, the teacher asked if we had been hurt and I volunteered that although I was pleased the articles on LDS.org were now there I felt like I had been lied to by the church for all my life, While I was serving as best I could. 10 years on missions 15 in bishoprics, numerous as HP group leader etc etc

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Lying is intentionally saying something that is materially false and known to the speaker as false. That is a pretty slanderous accusation to make toward “the Church”, presumably all of the leaders of the Church both generally and locally, over your entire “life”. Do you think they all really knew something that they knowingly misrepresented to you? I can’t judge your local leaders, but I know of nothing said by the general authorities that would fit that characterization in the last 50 years. Is it possible that you were simply ignorant of certain aspects of Church history because you failed to educate yourself, and then were “shocked” when someone told it to you unexpectedly?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    A “small landlord” is someone who rents out a room or a mother-in-law apartment in their own home. Such cases are generally exempted form other discrimination laws as well, because forcing people to live in close proximity to people who irritate them, and will be irritated by them, is a formula for manslaughter, not equal housing.

    The fact is that the Federal government and most states do NOT have laws that prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation. That is why the law in Utah was needed, and was appreciated by the LGBT community leaders who were consulted by the LDS Church, and participated in some of the public events when the Church announced its support.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    America has a long-standing policy that accommodates those who have a “conscientious objection” to military service or taking up arms, either exempting them completely or allowing them to serve as noncombatants. The failure to help actively take arms in defense of the nation is a much greater harm to society than declining to make a custom wedding cake for someone, but we as a society have concluded that it is in the best interest of our society if we honor the religious conscience of pacifists, such as Quakers and Seventh-Day Adventists. That applies most often today when someone undergoes a religious conversion to a pacifist denomination.

    Why can’t we also tolerate those who have a “conscientious objection” to providing creative, expressive services that support same sex marriages? There are plenty of other people who will happily provide those services for money, so the couples will not be deprived of any needed aspect of their event. Happy couples and happy believers.

  • geoff -Aus

    I was thinking that much of the information I learned from the articles on LDS.org were completely new to me, such as that JS was not the husband of one wife, called Emma. That JS had ordained Negroes but following leaders chose racism and taught it as if it were the Gospel, that all my church life Native Americans have been referred to as Lamanites, when there is no evidence that that is the case. That there was a culture of sanitising history. The Priesthood manuals of polygamists never mentioned that fact even when talking about families, or that they had taught that you needed at least 3 wives to be worthy of the highest degree in the celestial kingdom. So much more.

    It wasn’t the local leaders it was SLC church, that I feel lied to me. In my part of the world we were discouraged from reading anything other than magazines, lessons, and scripture.

    Raymond you may have been aware of all these things, I was not, and even now it is unacceptable to mention any of it in…

  • geoff -Aus

    In much of the world there are antidiscrimination laws which do not allow people to refuse service on the basis of race, religion, sex etc.
    When you replace another term like negro, or Mormon where gay person is and it doesn’t work any more, then it is wrong for gays too.

    Refusing to make a cake for a Mormon, or objecting to serve someone because they are negro, are I assume not acceptable any more. Why do we argue it is OK to discriminate because they are gay?

  • SanAntonioRob

    I do believe that the Church does and should defend the rights of other religions. That they used examples pertinent to members of their church, in connection with examples for other religions, does not detract from that.

    But the fact that they push for freedom of religion does not mean, nor should it mean, that they should push for freedom of every religious practice.

    After all, gay marriage does not equal plural marriage, does not equal incest, does not equal bestiality. Just because someone is for marriage equality (ie. the right of those of the same sex to marry) does not mean that they should support every potential marriage request (bestiality, incest, etc.).

    So to, requesting days off for religious observance (your example) is not the same as using illegal drugs (your example) or openly carrying daggers in a school (your example). To say that if the Church is for religious freedom, it should defend all potential religious practices, is preposterous.