James Heilpern is a graduate of the J. Reuben Clark Law School and serves on the Management Board of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
While those in the United States celebrate their independence, it is important to reflect on what freedoms were established in America that can benefit the whole world—one in particular is religious freedom. While it was born here, people in several other countries also have this incredible gift. It is fitting for believers (and non-believers) of all nationalities to reflect and give thanks for this freedom and right of faith.
About a year ago, my wife and I received a disturbing phone call from some close friends who live overseas. They live in a country where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not officially recognized. While the government there had always allowed congregations such as theirs to meet in private residencies, on this particular weekend, law enforcement forcibly disrupted and broke up their sacrament meeting. It was a terrifying ordeal for all involved.
Having grown up in the United States, I have not faced this type of overt opposition to my religion. It is easy for me, like many Americans, to take freedom of religion for granted. It’s like the air we breathe. The ability to believe and to act according to those religious beliefs is the basis of a pluralistic society.
So what are some of these precious religious liberties? It goes far beyond the mere right to believe as one sees fit. It includes the right to share those beliefs in public. It includes the right to organize as a religious assembly and be free from government intrusion, censorship, and taxation. It includes the right to act on sincerely held religious traditions. It includes the right to wear religious symbols in public—kippots, hijabs, crucifixes, and garments, for example—and to participate in the public sphere.
For our religious freedom to be protected, we must protect those with whom we disagree.
As the prophet Joseph Smith stated, “The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”
Let us therefore protect religious freedom where it already exists, and promote it in those countries where it has not yet flourished.