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Mormon apostle Oaks: Religious freedom will trump threats

First Published      Last Updated Apr 17 2014 12:32 pm

Dallin H. Oaks was a lawyer and a judge, rising to the lofty title of Utah Supreme Court justice.

That all changed in 1984 with his appointment as a Mormon apostle.

For three decades now, he has spent more time talking about Jesus than jurisprudence, writing sermons, not rulings, dissecting scriptures, not case law.

On Wednesday night, however, Oaks returned to his legal roots to deliver a major address at Utah Valley University's Center of Constitutional Studies in Orem on one of his favorite topics: religious freedom.

"It has been 30 years since I left the legal profession to assume my present duties," Oaks said. "The invitation to give the keynote address at this symposium on religious freedom calls me out of legal retirement to speak in a non-church forum. In this circumstance some will see me as a church authority, but on this occasion I do not speak of church doctrine. On a vital public issue, I speak in behalf of all religious people."

Oaks emphasized the need for religious liberty and free speech while warning of the threats to those constitutional rights.

He pointed to the backlash many Mormons faced for supporting California's now-discarded Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the Golden State, as well as the "bullying" that prompted Mozilla's top executive to step down for contributing $1,000 to that campaign.

"Some current theories assert that religious speech is less deserving of protection than other types of speech," Oaks said. "Without detailing the obvious, I merely maintain that our constitutional freedom of religion is intended to be guaranteed not only by the free exercise of religion but also by the companion guarantee of freedom of speech."

Here are more excerpts from Oaks' speech (a transcript is available on the LDS Church's newsroom website):

• "We live in a time of diminishing freedom of speech — not the formal free-speech doctrine declared by the United States Supreme Court, but the extent of free speech enjoyed by citizens in their daily lives. Ironically, this occurs at a time when technology has extended the impact of speech far beyond what could have been imagined even a few decades ago. But what kind of speech? I fear that free speech is diminishing as a result of the chilling effect of mostly invisible restraints, even censorship."

• "Accusations of bigotry or animus leveled at those who promote an adverse position have a chilling effect on speech and public debate on many important issues. Both freedom of speech and freedom of religion are jeopardized when their advocates are disparaged as being motivated by hatred. ... It surely demeans free speech to reject it in a public setting because of the assumed motives of the speaker. The same result follows if speech is disqualified according to stereotypes affixed to the speaker."

• "We all have a vital interest in religion because religious belief in right and wrong is fundamental to producing the needed voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens."

Oaks voiced "reasons for hope" that free speech and the free exercise of religious motives, religious speech and religious organizations would prevail "in the long run," partly because more and more citizens and groups are raising their voices against any threats to these concepts.

He also expressed optimism that contending parties would resolve their differences.

"In this country we have a history of tolerant diversity — not perfect but mostly effective at allowing persons with competing visions to live together in peace," Oaks said. " ... Court contests will continue. Some decisions will help the effort of long-term conciliation and some will aggravate it. But in the long run, we have reason to hope that the guarantees and system of government established in our inspired Constitution will see us through these controversies as with others in times past."