Below I analyze the recent LDS news conference from the perspective of BYU’s practice of expelling, evicting, and terminating LDS BYU students who change their faith.
Transcript of News Conference on Religious Freedom and Nondiscrimination
Published January 27, 2015
This is a transcript of a news conference held January 27, 2015 that included three members of the governing Twelve Apostles and one woman leader of the Church. Leaders called for a “fairness for all” approach that balances religious freedom protections with reasonable safeguards for LGBT people — specifically in areas of housing, employment and public transportation, which are not available in many parts of the country.
Welcome and introductions by
Elder D. Todd Christofferson
Good morning and thank you for coming. I am Elder D. Todd Christofferson, and I’m here to introduce this news conference in my capacity as one of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sister Neill Marriott, a member of the Young Women general presidency, and Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Twelve Apostles, will each take a few minutes to share their remarks.
Although the Church has many daily interactions with news media, we don’t hold news conferences very often – perhaps every year or two when we have a major announcement to make or something significant to say. And today, we do have something to say. We want to share with you our concerns about the increasing tensions and polarization between advocates of religious freedom on the one hand, and advocates of gay rights on the other.
To those who follow the Church closely and who are familiar with its teachings and positions on various social issues, it will be apparent that we are announcing no change in doctrine or Church teachings today. But we are suggesting a way forward in which those with different views on these complex issues can together seek for solutions that will be fair to everyone.
Following our remarks some of us will remain behind to allow you to ask any clarifying questions individually.
Sister Marriott, in her capacity as a member of the Church’s Public Affairs Committee, will begin, followed by Elders Oaks and Holland.
Sister Neill Marriott
My name is Neill Marriott and I’m pleased to be here today with Elders Christofferson, Oaks and Holland on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to share our views on the ongoing discussion of religious freedom. While we speak primarily to an American public, we include our own members who number 15 million worldwide, many of whom reside in other nations wrestling with the same issues we face here in the United States.
This nation is engaged in a great debate about marriage, family, individual conscience and collective rights and the place of religious freedom in our society. The eventual outcome of this debate will influence to a large extent whether millions of people with diverse backgrounds and different views and values will live together in relative harmony for the foreseeable future.
In any democratic society, differences often lead to tensions. Such tensions are not to be feared unless they become so extreme that they threaten to tear apart the very fabric of society. While that’s happened sometimes in our history, we’re at our best as fellow citizens when the push-pull of different viewpoints, freely and thoroughly aired in national debate, lead ultimately to compromise and resolution and we move on as a nation, stronger than before.
The debate we speak of today is about how to affirm rights for some without taking away from the rights of others. On one side of the debate we have advocates of LGBT rights. This movement arose after centuries of ridicule, persecution and even violence against homosexuals. Ultimately, most of society recognized that such treatment was simply wrong, and that such basic human rights as securing a job or a place to live should not depend on a person’s sexual orientation.
Importantly, these human rights should also not depend on a person’s expression of religious faith. LDS BYU students are human entitled to these rights. However- when they publicly change their faith, BYU terminates them from their campus jobs and evicts them from their housing. This is an excerpt from the letter that such students receive from the honor code office:
“Effective immediately, you are no longer eligible… to attend daytime or evening classes, to register for other courses, to graduate from BYU, to work for the university, or to reside in BYU contract housing.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that sexual relations other than between a man and a woman who are married are contrary to the laws of God.
This commandment and doctrine comes from sacred scripture and we are not at liberty to change it. But, God is loving and merciful.
His heart reaches out to all of His children equally and He expects us to treat each other with love and fairness. There’s ample evidence in the life of Jesus Christ to demonstrate that He stood firm for living the laws of God, yet reached out to those who had been marginalized even though He was criticized for doing so. Racial minorities, women, the elderly, people with physical or mental disabilities, and those with unpopular occupations all found empathy from the Savior of mankind.
It’s for this reason that the Church has publicly favored laws and ordinances that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Meanwhile, those who seek the protection of religious conscience and expression and the free exercise of their religion look with alarm at the steady erosion of treasured freedoms that are guaranteed in the United States Constitution. Since 1791 the guarantees of religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment have assured all citizens that they may hold whatever religious views they want, and that they are free to express and act on those beliefs so long as such actions do not endanger public health or safety.
Note that Elder Oaks explicitly constructs First Amendment religious freedom as the freedom to hold whatever religious views they want, and that they are free to express and act on those beliefs.
This is one of America’s most cherished and defining freedoms. Yet today we see new examples of attacks on religious freedom with increasing frequency. Among them are these:
In the state of California, two-dozen Christian student groups have been denied recognition because they require their own leaders to share their Christian beliefs. The university system is forcing these groups to compromise their religious conscience if they want recognition for their clubs.
Recently in one of America’s largest cities, government lawyers subpoenaed the sermons and notes of pastors who opposed parts of a new law on religious grounds. These pastors faced not only intimidation, but also criminal prosecution for insisting that a new gay rights ordinance should be put to a vote of the people.
Evicting and terminating LDS BYU students who change their faith belongs on this list right next to the others. It is itself a conspicuous example of abrogating the very freedom Elder Oaks articulates- the freedom to hold whatever religious views they want, and that they are free to express and act on those beliefs. LDS BYU students are not free to express and act on their religious beliefs- their expression is burdened by the risk of subsequent expulsion and termination.
Several years ago, an Olympic gold-medal gymnast—a Latter-day Saint, as it happened—had been selected to lead the American delegation to the Olympic Games. He was pressured to resign as the symbolic head of the team because gay rights advocates protested that he had supported Proposition 8 in California. Ironically, he was denied the same freedom of conscience that commentators demanded for the gay athletes he would symbolically represent.
More recently, the head of a large American corporation was forced to resign from his position in a similar well-publicized backlash to his personal beliefs.
Sadly, the list is expanding. Accusations of bigotry toward people simply because they are motivated by their religious faith and conscience have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and public debate.
Indeed it does. That chilling effect exists on BYU campus- chilling public debate, freedom of speech, and academic freedom. We have examples of BYU students being called into their Bishop’s office to confront a comment they made about feminism on their Facebook wall, a BYU law student who had to self-censor his book on homosexuality in order to avoid expulsion, and many more. LDS BYU students who experience a faith transition frequently report feeling afraid to raise their voices and express their opinions in BYU classrooms due to fear that others will discover their true religious beliefs, leading to their expulsion.
When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser. Such tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing or public services because of race or gender.
If such tactics are every bit as wrong as denials based on race or gender, why does BYU employ them against LDS BYU students who express a change of faith?
Churches should stand on at least as strong a footing as any other entity when they enter the public square to participate in public policy debates.
It is one of today’s great ironies that some people who have fought so hard for LGBT rights now try to deny the rights of others to disagree with their public policy proposals. The precious constitutional right of free speech does not exclude any individual or group, and a society is only truly free when it respects freedom of religious exercise, conscience and expression for everyone, including unpopular minorities.
Today, state legislatures across the nation are being asked to strengthen laws related to LGBT issues in the interest of ensuring fair access to housing and employment. The leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on record as favoring such measures. At the same time, we urgently need laws that protect faith communities and individuals against discrimination and retaliation for claiming the core rights of free expression and religious practice that are at the heart of our identity as a nation and our legacy as citizens.
Because we are frequently asked for our position on these matters, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asserts the following principles based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, and on fairness for all, including people of faith:
We claim for everyone the God-given and Constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, without harming the health or safety of others.
We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice, or none at all if they so choose.
BYU expels, terminates, and evicts LDS students who choice a religious faith besides Mormonism, including choosing no faith at all. BYU’s policy is inconsistent with this official position of its own sponsoring institution: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
We believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with differing values.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoys nearly unfettered discretion in framing the Honor Code, which functions as a local law at BYU (Bishops are the judges, and offenders are punished by expulsion). It’s leader is also the Chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees, yet that Board persists in framing the honor code to burden the religious freedom of the majority of its students: despite a formal request and inconsistency between LDS teachings and the policy.
We reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances or differences in gender or sexual orientation.
The LDS Church may reject retaliation based on religious belief: but BYU embraces the same by expelling, terminating, and evicting LDS BYU students based on their (new) religious beliefs.
We call on local, state and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation—protections which are not available in many parts of the country.
Your call would be more powerful were it made by an institution that did what it is asking other institutions to do: protect religious freedoms, especially in housing and employment. Instead, BYU burdens expressions of religious freedom by depriving students’ ability to enroll, graduate, retain their campus jobs, and remain in their BYU contracted housing.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Accommodating the rights of all people—including their religious rights—requires wisdom and judgment, compassion and fairness.
LDS BYU students are a subset of “all people”, and the accommodation of their religious rights does require wisdom and judgment, compassion and fairness. Does the current policy demonstrate that the BYU Board of Trustees employs these characteristics?
Politically, it certainly requires dedication to the highest level of statesmanship. Nothing is achieved if either side resorts to bullying, political point scoring or accusations of bigotry.
These are serious issues, and they require serious minds engaged in thoughtful, courteous discourse.
What kinds of religious rights are we talking about? To begin with, we refer to the constitutionally guaranteed right of religious communities to function according to the dictates of their faith. This includes their right to teach their beliefs from the pulpit and in church classrooms, share their views openly in the public square, select their own leaders, and minister to their members freely.
This construction of religious freedom is inconsistent with that expressed by Elder Oaks. The religious freedom of an individual often conflicts with the religious freedom of a religious institution. For example, the LDS Church fired a gym employee in a famous Supreme Court case that sided with the institution. In that case, the religious freedom of the gym employee was burdened while the religious institution’s right to discriminate was vindicated.
So whose construct represents the Church’s position: Oaks or Holland? It is hard to say. What we can point out is that the overwhelming majority of authoritative LDS statements from Joseph to the present, including the scriptural ones, have extolled individual religious freedom. This is the freedom of God’s children to express and live their faith, rather than the freedom of incorporated entities to fire employees who change their faith or expel students who choose to leave Mormonism for Islam.
They include the right to use church properties in accordance with their beliefs without second-guessing from government. Of course such rights should never be exercised in ways that jeopardize public health or personal safety. They would embrace such matters as employment, honor code standards, and accreditation at church schools.
Even if Elder Hollands institutional construction prevails, it is not clear that honor code and accreditation standards should be immune from regulation- especially when there are such clear impacts on the quality of the academic environment and programs offered at church schools. How can secular degrees awarded by an institution retain their credibility when the institution burdens academic and religious freedom?
Importantly- even if we were to agree that such immunity were merited, it does not follow that the LDS church should expel LDS BYU students who change their faith. Might does not make right in the context of religious freedom, as the Church itself reiterated as recently as 2014 (see In Honor of Human Rights).
That is because church-owned businesses or entities that are directly related to the purposes and functions of the church must have the same latitude in employment standards and practices as the church itself.
Certainly, religious rights must include a family’s right to worship and conduct religious activities in the home as it sees fit, and for parents to teach their children according to their religious values—recognizing that when children are old enough they will choose their own path.
LDS BYU students do not enjoy the right to worship and conduct religious activities in the home as they see fit. An LDS BYU student who converts to Islam risks expulsion and eviction if she practices daily prostration, one of the five pillars of Islam. When one spouse in an LDS BYU student marriage converts to atheism and refrains from family prayer, his spouse’s report to their Bishop can result in the expulsion of the atheist spouse.
In addition to institutional protections, individual people of faith must maintain their constitutional rights. This would include living in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs, including choosing their profession or employment or serving in public office without intimidation, coercion or retaliation from another group.
How about continuing one’s chosen education path? An LDS BYU student mere months from graduation should not be deprived of the opportunity to graduate merely because she chooses to follow her religious conscience by embracing another faith. BYU should not burden students’ freedom to complete their education, keep their jobs, and remain in their homes because their religious consciences change.
For example, a Latter-day Saint physician who objects to performing abortions or artificial insemination for a lesbian couple should not be forced against his or her conscience to do so, especially when others are readily available to perform that function. As another example, a neighborhood Catholic pharmacist, who declines to carry the “morning after” pill when large pharmacy chains readily offer that item, should likewise not be pressured into violating his or her conscience by bullying or boycotting.
With understanding and goodwill, including some give and take, none of these rights guaranteed to people of faith will encroach on the rights of gay men and women who wish to live their lives according to their own rights and principles.
Let us conclude by emphasizing this point as an alternative to the rhetoric and intolerance that for too long has come to characterize national debate on this matter. We must find ways to show respect for others whose beliefs, values and behaviors differ from ours while never being forced to deny or abandon our own beliefs, values and behaviors in the process. Every citizen’s rights are best guarded when each person and group guards for others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.
There is no simpler or more applicable articulation of principle for religious freedom at BYU. Were a Catholic student at a Catholic school to convert to Mormonism while attending, we would desire that student to be able to openly change religions and finish her studies – without losing her job, being evicted from her housing, and getting expelled. The LDS church wishes protection for the religious freedom of its adherents; it should protect that same freedom for others (specifically, ex-LDS BYU students).
Today we have spelled out the Church’s concerns about the erosion of religious liberties, while at the same time calling for fairness for all people. We remind everyone of an official statement made by the Church in 1835, a statement formally incorporated into its sacred text known as the Doctrine and Covenants. The text of that scripture asserts both elements of the position we are taking today.
First, that all of us are accountable to God for the responsible exercise of our religious beliefs and we are calling on our fellow citizens to be responsible in exercising their religious freedom.
To the extent that religious freedom is institutional rather than individual, as Elder Holland articulates, then the LDS church should itself be responsible in exercising its religious freedom- including the privilege it enjoys to legally expel and terminate students based on those students’ religious expression.
Secondly, that scripture sets out the proper role of government in protecting the public interest without encroaching on free exercise, what it calls “the freedom of the soul.”
This statement contradicts Elder Holland’s earlier construction of free exercise. Free exercise cannot refer to both the freedom of a soulless entity (an institution such as the LDS church) and the freedom of the soul (e.g. an actual child of God), when those two freedoms are incompatible.
Some 180 years later, the determination of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be responsible citizens while also defending religious liberty remains undiminished.
Undiminished in word, perhaps- but the LDS message would be louder and more effective were it not diminished by failing to live up to its own standard in deed.
Thank you for listening.
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