Provo • Religious freedom does not truly exist for anyone if it does not exist equally for everyone, a senior leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Wednesday.
“Religious freedom means nothing if you protect your own religious practice while neglecting the practice of others, especially those who might be less secure and able to defend themselves,” Patrick Kearon, a member of the faith’s Presidency of the Seventy, said at a speech opening Brigham Young University’s Religious Freedom Annual Review. “It only works if you protect the rights of everyone.”
Defending and respecting others does not mean that adherents must diminish their own beliefs, said Kearon. Rather, a broad view of religious liberty frames it as something universal and inalienable for all people.
Kearon was born in the United Kingdom and has lived in many countries, including ones that punished people for having divergent beliefs. He cautioned against forgetting the sacrifices and hardships that went into creating and defining the religious freedoms that Americans enjoy today.
“Most of us drink from the waters of religious freedom without even knowing it,” Kearon said. “We think of it as a river that will always flow, but we might not recognize the rifts and tributaries that feed that river.”
Although people who have religious freedom might not think about it on a daily basis, those who lack it are forced to grapple with it constantly. Violation of religious freedom, said Kearon, is one of the main reasons why there are so many refugees and displaced people across the globe.
The world needs places of refuge where people of all religions can find liberty, said Kearon, who wowed Latter-day Saints in 2016 with his impassioned General Conference plea urging members to help refugees.
The Latter-day Saint authority also warned against demanding rights without taking responsibility for implementing them. “Though these inalienable rights come from above, they still must be cultivated by human beings down below.”
This year’s BYU conference is themed “Religious Freedom for a New Generation,” and Kearon noted that one current challenge is ensuring that young people, who sometimes see religion in conflict with values of inclusion and tolerance, understand the importance of religious freedom.
He encouraged attendees to actively engage with members of other faiths or from nonfaith backgrounds, to walk a mile with their brothers and sisters, to make religious respect and diversity a cultural norm. He also called on them to give back to their families and communities and serve those in need.
Latter-day Saints have a track record of serving others, he said. A friend of his once joked that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) really stands for “Find Every Mormon Available” because of the willingness of members to go to the sites of devastating natural disasters to help. Often, he added, they are joined by members of other faiths.
Audience members, who came from across the country and world, applauded Kearon’s speech and said they were excited to learn more during the conference, which features 70 speakers and will address issues including religion in higher education, women's rights and public policy.
Nikita Lipp attended the conference as part of a group of students and professors from BYU-Idaho. She hopes the conference will help her better articulate what religious freedom means and how to find balance when different rights might initially seem at odds with one another.
Tina Ramirez, founder of Hardwired International, has experienced just such a situation.
Ramirez, who spoke on the second panel of the day, “Why Religious Freedom Matters to Me,” worked for a firm which defended Hobby Lobby when the corporation declared a religious objection to providing certain kinds of birth control to employees. Ramirez said that the right to conscientious objection is an important part of religious freedom.
Khalid Latif, executive director and Imam of the Islamic Center of New York University, spoke on the same panel about his experience meeting with Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who had seen members of their villages being burned alive and shot as part of the country’s ongoing genocide.
Latif also pointed out the structural inequalities that plague the United States today. He highlighted the contradiction in the formation of a country that guaranteed religious liberty but did not bestow equal freedom on women and did not bestow any freedom on black people.
Latif recalled attending a 9/11 memorial service while working as a police chaplain in New York. Despite his official police outfit, he was questioned by three men who were suspicious of his credentials. Latif said he felt invalidated based on his appearance and faith until a woman who had lost her son to the terrorist attacks saw what was happening and came to his defense.
“As easily as they had taken that validation away,” he said, “she brought it right back.”