SALT LAKE CITY — The Deseret News spent the past six months investigating the present and future of religious freedom.
We combed through 140 state-level bills, highlighting policy developments related to LGBT rights, health care and campus life. We explored a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit in Michigan, where faith-based adoption agencies are fighting to stay open. We visited Arizona State University to expose the dangers of a world where people no longer know how to civilly disagree.
The stories revealed rising tensions and a few glimmers of hope. A growing number of lawmakers and community leaders are seeking compromise in high stakes religious freedom debates, but they're still outnumbered by those with a winner-take-all mentality.
Now, we're turning to top faith leaders, policymakers and religious freedom advocates to understand where to go from here. Americans once rallied around protections for people of all faiths and no faith. Will that ever be the case again?
These responses were edited for length and clarity.
President Dallin H. Oaks
First counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Today's religious freedom debates are different than in the past. They've increased in breadth and intensity.
Religious freedom has gotten political. It's dividing people along lines different than before.
In the 1950s and 1960s, religious freedom debates were about issues like whether or not the federal government should give aid to Catholic parochial schools.
But over the years, new divisions emerged. We see people who believe in God in contests with people who don't, or people who value religion and recognize that religion holds society together in contests with people who reject this.
Fewer and fewer people believe in God. And if you don't believe in God, you don't believe in absolute right and wrong, and you don't see any benefit to society by giving a special place to religion or religious preachers or activities.
That's probably not a popular view, but it's where I come from and why I have a continuing interest in religious freedom. I care about it not just because of my position in the church, but because of my position as a citizen and as a former judge and as a believer in the law and right and wrong.
People who make light of religious freedom forget the history of the things that made this country great. The abolition of slavery was brought about by religious preachers. The civil rights movement was brought about by religious preachers. Other great moral advances in Western civilization came about through public preaching changing people's hearts, not through secular arguments.
Listen to the First Amendment. It begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That's the first thing said in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it, along with the associated freedoms of speech and the press, is fundamental to our society. These rights are not negotiable. We can't stand still and see them weakened.
People of faith do need to be more sensitive to people with different points of view. They need to be talking expressly about how religion benefits not just believers, but all of society. The First Amendment is, in the long run, what's going to help us solve serious problems like racism and discrimination in our society.
Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, member of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisory board, ordained Southern Baptist pastor
There's a ton of energy right now around peaceful coexistence, which I think is the nearest neighbor to religious freedom. In some very unlikely places, people are willing to have open conversations about what needs to change and ways to change.
This year, I've made two visits to Saudi Arabia. I've been to Indonesia. I've been in dialogue with Egyptians and Jordanians.
Through those experiences thinking about religious freedom in an Islamic context, I've become less of a religious freedom activist and more of an advocate. I'm taking a more humble approach. Instead of walking into meetings and wagging my finger, I'm sitting down at the table and saying, 'Help me understand.'
As a Christian, I do not have permission to not love someone. Every single human being is made in the image of God. I have to engage with people who are like me and who aren't like me, people who think like me and don't think like me, people who have my religion and don't have my religion.
You don't fully understand your own position until you understand other perspectives. I think everyone is too quick to point fingers.
Religious freedom makes building trust and understanding easier. People aren't fearful of sharing their point of view.
I'm focused on building trust within the religious freedom landscape. Rather than scream at each other and have big public fights, people need to sit down in good faith around the table and consider how to move forward. People should not be discriminated against, but religious freedom cannot be compromised.
Let's sit down around the same table and let's negotiate about acceptable, lawful solutions. Let's stop playing zero-sum games.
Robin Fretwell Wilson
Law professor and director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois, consultant on state religious freedom legislation, including the 2015 Utah laws balancing LGBT and religious rights
Everybody is trying to follow their convictions. We haven't found the answers that will allow everyone to be treated fairly.
At the end of the day, kids are trapped in these debates. They're the least powerful people, even though the entire system is supposed to be about them.
My focus in 2019 is taking children out of the culture war around adoption.
We have competing discrimination claims playing out across the country. There are a set of states saying we can't discriminate against LGBT persons seeking to adopt or foster children. Other states say we can't discriminate against the religious adoption agencies turning LGBT persons away.
It's a tragedy to watch the teetering possibility of agency closures. And the teetering possibility that really good people who want to take care of children won't be treated well.
But I do feel a sense of optimism. There are a lot of people who are trying to bridge divides between communities. The key is to not shoot down compromise efforts just because they don't align 100 percent with your singular self-interest.
We've had a paucity of imagination on culture war issues. Nobody is trying very hard to find answers. Instead they're thinking, 'I have this interest and every other thing needs to cede to it.' They're dropping a bomb that levels everything in its path.
When the LGBT community or faith community feels like they have the wind at their back, they act like they don't need to be at the table talking. But we're stuck with each other.
What would be nice is if we paused for a moment and maybe just asked ourselves if there were better ways to navigate shifting political winds so that securing civil rights didn't seem like a game of Pong. It bothers me that we're teaching our children that securing rights is all about power.
What our lawmakers need is the cover to go do a brave thing. We have to start saying, 'Hey, what's been happening is unacceptable.' We have to find a way to be well together and recognize each other for who we are.
Vice president and executive director of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Religious freedom is about deeply held convictions. No two people, even if they go to the same church or ascribe to the same deity, believe the same thing in exactly the same way.
These are heated debates that are hard to find concrete agreements on because they are related to who we are at our core as human beings. We may agree on general things, but we're always going to have disagreements.
Our cases are about government power, about how much the government should be involved in your religion. Some people think there's a degree of involvement you need. That's where it becomes sticky. We go back and forth and try to find balance that weighs what is necessary for the common good against the inalienable human rights of all Americans.
Any time a debate involves power and morality, it won't be easy to solve. That's been the case since this country's founding.
Our society grows and changes and we debate the guidelines that govern it. That's a privilege. As an immigrant, I will say that's part of the beauty of living in America. We get to have these conversations.
In 2019, we're working on an interesting smattering of new issues and old issues.
There are cases about adoption and foster care services in Michigan and Pennsylvania. There's been a lack of willingness to yield to common-sense solutions that have existed for years.
There are also money issues, like whether ministers can have a housing allowance or if historic preservation grants can go to churches. We're working on cross cases, which ask whether you can have a memorial in the shape of a cross on public land. It would cost more money to tear those down than to keep them in place.
We constantly have to be vigilant. Our work is never done.
Even if we win a Supreme Court case, Congress can come up with something that affects the outcome. I don't think I'm going to be out of a job for a while. But if that day comes when religious freedom for all is protected, I would welcome it. I really would.
President and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State_, an advocacy organization seeking to protect religious freedom by reducing government entanglement with faith groups_
There's an unprecedented emphasis on religious freedom right now by government leaders. At the same time, there's an increase in discrimination and attacks on religious minorities in the name of religion.
We are witnessing the weaponization of religious freedom. It's been turned from a shield protecting religious people who are vulnerable to a sword that's licensing discrimination and harm.
Just this year, we saw the Trump administration release rules allowing any boss to deny their employee access to affordable birth control because of the boss' religious beliefs. We've witnessed an evangelical advisory board and religious liberty task force given unprecedented access to the White House. The Obama administration's faith advisory council was intentionally diverse.
In state legislatures, we've been battling bills on foster care and adoption, which would allow discrimination in the name of religion. After the midterm election, states like Georgia and Iowa are in a position to pass harmful new religious freedom laws.
And on the courts, we really need to brace ourselves. There are a number of cases the Supreme Court could hear soon that will have serious effects on church-state separation.
We don't have true religious freedom when one narrow set of religious beliefs is foisted on the rest of us. True religious freedom is about everybody's right to believe what they want to believe, to choose their own spiritual brew and maybe change their beliefs throughout their lifetime. It's not about using religion as a tool to justify harm to other people.
When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act became law 25 years ago, it brought an amazing range of people together across political divides and across different religions. They promised to find shared values around the cherished principles of religious freedom for all. They never anticipated that it would be twisted and misused to license discrimination and harm.
Rabbi David Saperstein
Senior adviser for strategy and policy with the Union for Reform Judaism and former U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom
In the United States, people are able to worship as they wish and organize their religious lives and institutions as they wish. They're able to publish the books they want to publish and create the religious camps they want to send their children to.
At the same time, there are heartfelt differences that exist on a handful of issues. Most particularly, how do we balance religious freedom claims against civil rights claims?
This is a very important, vexing and challenging issue. But I pray for the day when, on the global scene, the most challenging religious issue is whether or not corporations have religious freedom rights.
In too many countries, people face persecution or imprisonment for their peaceful religious practices. They suffer torture and brutality and too often death. They are afflicted by group hatred, ethnic cleansing and genocidal activity.
On those global issues, all of us on both sides of the debates in the United States, across partisan divides and religious differences, stand together to say that nobody should be oppressed, discriminated against or persecuted because of their religious identity.
Domestic religious freedom issues are still of deep significance. People are fearful of being forced by the state to engage in activities that violate their core religious beliefs. On the other side, victims of discrimination are fearful that if religious exemptions to civil rights laws are broadly available then we'd be gutting the entire structure of civil rights protections in America.
So these debates are vitally important. But we have to remind people how much more dangerous, perilous and larger in scope the problems are elsewhere. Several billion people face religious discrimination and persecution across the globe.
American politics has become more polarized. The culture wars have always been there but, in recent years, they've gotten worse.
We've seen a trend toward religious freedom claims related to gay rights, abortion and contraception. Religious liberty as a phrase has become politicized. It's seen as discrimination against women and LGBTQ individuals.
I think that's a worrying trend. When people think about religious liberty, they're thinking about culture wars instead of attacks on religious minorities.
President Donald Trump has given so much attention to religious liberty as it's championed by conservative religious groups. He's given so much space and support to traditional, religious concerns. At the same time, there's been top-down rhetoric against a range of minorities, including Muslims.74 comments on this story
I'm trying to highlight what's happening to American Muslims. Propagandists are generating fear about this community, which then motivates people to engage in hate crimes. They're depriving Muslims of religious liberty, impeding their ability to build houses or worship or wear religious garb.
I think a lot of people are stuck in this frame of thinking of Muslims in terms of violence and extremism. But when you weaken constitutional protections for one group, you also weaken them for yourself.
Our law is based on precedent. Once we decide religions we don't agree with or beliefs we don't understand deserve less protection, we create a really dangerous precedent.