Transcript of Elder Von G. Keetch at Detroit Interfaith Religious Freedom Conference

Transcript of Elder Von G. Keetch at Detroit Interfaith Religious Freedom Conference

Additional Resource

"Moral Agency, Religious Freedom, and Balancing Competing Rights"
By Elder Von G. Keetch 
Detroit Interfaith Religious Freedom Conference
November 7, 2017

The Place of Religious Freedom in LDS Beliefs: The Doctrine of Moral Agency

Latter-day Saints certainly agree that religious free exercise is a good rule of civil law. We also agree that such rights are the strong foundation upon which society is built.

But for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, religious freedom goes much deeper. We believe that one of the most important gifts given by God to men and women is the right to choose—to exercise their agency or free will in making the decisions of life. We believe this agency is central to God’s plan. We cannot become all that we should become, and most importantly, we cannot become more like God unless we are able to freely choose good from evil and to learn the consequences of making that choice. We believe that God will never force His children in this regard; rather, we believe that our Heavenly Father has protected at great cost His children’s right to choose and that it is the exercise of this right that allows His children to return to Him and to receive all that He has.

As one of my colleagues in the Seventy put it: “Religious liberty helps preserve the benefits of the Atonement [of Jesus Christ] to each soul because it protects moral agency in matters of faith. It is this agency that is the crucible—the fiery furnace of adversity and decision—in which we determine our eternal destiny. It is the crossroads, and sometimes the “cross,” where each of us decides whether or not to choose Christ and His commandments.

Exercising that agency is the very purpose of mortal life. Protecting that crucible, therefore, is vital to salvation and the great plan of happiness. If the exercise of that agency is compromised, the conditions of our repentance and forgiveness likewise risk compromise.”

It is important to note that this essential right of self-determination is available to all people of any religious persuasion or of no religious persuasion at all. Latter-day Saints believe in defending the religious freedom for everyone. In the early 1840s, Latter-day Saints codified this sentiment in a Nauvoo City ordinance guaranteeing tolerance for all faiths: “Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city.”[1]

What the Church Means by “Religious Freedom”

With agency as its focus, the Church aims to preserve legal, social, and cultural space so that people of faith are free to believe, speak, and act according to the dictates of their conscience, without being oppressed, silenced, or marginalized, while still being subject to laws that are necessary to protect vital interests.

So, very specifically, what does religious freedom mean?

  • It is the right of all people to hold their own religious beliefs and express them openly without fear of persecution or being denied equal rights of citizenship.
  • It is the right of all people to freely choose or change their religion, teach their faith to their children, receive and disseminate religious information, gather with others to worship, and participate in the ceremonies and practices of their faith.
  • It is the right of all people to be protected from religious discrimination in employment, housing, and other basic services.
  • It is the right of all people to be protected from religious discrimination that would deny them the right to have a business, occupation, or professional license.

Additionally and very importantly, freedom of religion protects not only individuals but also the religious organizations that make faith communities possible.

  • It is the right to form churches and other religious institutions, such as religious schools and charities.
  • It is the right to establish their doctrines and modes of worship; organize ecclesiastical affairs; determine requirements for membership, ecclesiastical office, and employment; own property; and construct places of worship.

Religious freedom is not absolute. Limits on religious activities are appropriate where necessary to protect compelling interests, such as the lives, property, health, or safety of others. Such limitations must be truly compelling, not just a pretense for abridging religious freedom. Where the law conflicts with religious freedom, Latter-day Saints believe in obeying the law while seeking protection for their fundamental rights through the democratic process, the courts, and other lawful means.

Religious Freedom Priorities

Now, in a society that is increasingly secular and whose values often directly contradict those with traditional religious beliefs, we have no choice but to set priorities. Not all religious claims are created equal. There is an important hierarchy of religious liberty interests that distinguishes between interests that matter profoundly and those that are not as important. May I suggest to you a diagram for thinking about these priorities?

At the innermost core, we find freedom of belief; freedoms related to family gospel teaching and worship; freedom to express your beliefs to another willing listener, as we do in missionary work; freedom to determine Church doctrine, select priesthood leaders, and determine membership criteria. Also included is the same right of free speech and expression in the public square as any other citizen. These are the freedoms inherent in American citizenship. They are nonnegotiable.

Next is a cluster of rights very near the core. These include the right not to be punished, retaliated against, or excluded from one’s profession or employment based solely on one’s faith. America has no religious test for public office. Similarly, there should be no religious test for working in the various professions regulated by the government. Those with traditional beliefs regarding marriage, family, gender, and sexuality should not be excluded from being professional counselors, teachers, lawyers, doctors, or any other profession where the government grants licenses.

Near these core interests are freedoms that relate to religiously important, nonprofit functions carried on by religious organizations and religious schools. Religious nonprofits should have the freedom to have employment policies that reflect their religious beliefs, including the freedom to hire based on religious criteria. Religious colleges should have the freedom to establish honor codes that reflect their religious teachings. Religious charities should have the right to conduct their good works according to the dictates of their respective faiths.

However, as we move beyond these core interests into more commercial settings, our expectations of unfettered religious freedom must be tempered. This is not because commerce is unimportant but because it overlaps with what for decades have been considered civil rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against in employment or denied service at a traditional place of public accommodation (like a hotel or restaurant) based on certain characteristics. In this area, claims by business owners for religious freedom are strongest in small, intimate, and family business settings and correspondingly weaker in large and impersonal corporate settings. It is in these commercial settings where defenders of religious freedom sometimes must be willing to make prudential compromises.

Finally, there are zones beyond these priorities where claims for religious liberty are much weaker and will be very difficult to defend. Some of these pertain to government services, where officials are required by law to perform certain functions. In these areas, religious beliefs should be reasonably accommodated, but other governmental interests may significantly limit the degree of accommodation. For instance, if it is your job to issue marriage licenses as an employee in the county clerk’s office and there is no one else in your office who can perform this function, then your freedom to refuse to issue licenses for marriages that are contrary to your religious beliefs may be very limited.

When Rights Conflict—Pluralism/“Fairness for All”

In a diverse society with divergent visions of life and morality, conflicts between religious freedom and other interests will naturally arise. That is the very nature of religious freedom. Indeed, conflicts between rights are common across a range of legal and social areas and are nothing new. Such conflicts call upon us to find ways to secure fundamental religious rights while also allowing the protection of rights that are necessary for others to live freely and with dignity too.

Hence, the current conflict between religious freedom and assertions of LGBT rights is best addressed through a pluralism approach, or what the Church and many others call “Fairness for All.” It entails:

  • Protecting core religious rights that believers and religious institutions must have so they can live their religion freely, openly, and without being legally or socially marginalized.
  • Protecting core rights that LGBT persons and their institutions need to live according to their deepest needs and convictions freely, openly, and without being legally or socially marginalized.
  • Practical, reasonable compromises when non-core rights and interest conflict, recognizing that neither side can get all it wants.

This approach is premised on the great American ideal that in a diverse society there should be space for everyone to believe and live according to what’s most important to them. It seeks to preserve religious freedom while also securing essential rights for others—including LGBT Americans. It is an approach to living peacefully despite fundamental differences that will always exist in our society.

This was the approach the Church sought to take in the 2015 Utah legislation that protected both religious freedom and LGBT rights. No one claims the legislation was perfect, but it did secure vital interests on both sides and bring an important measure of peace and unity to a badly divided community. Utah has been a better place for it.

A Call to Action

Those involved in this process have often called the process of protecting religious freedom the “hard work of citizenship.” All of us need to get involved. The time for expecting that others will stand up for our rights and find reasonable compromises for us is long over. I might add that this also means standing up for the rights of others. In today’s world, the most effective way to protect everyone’s rights is for each side to stand up for the other’s core rights and to engage in good-faith discussions about rights that fall within the zone of compromise.

Now, as to what each of you can do, the key is to “lift where you stand.” You don’t have to become a Supreme Court practitioner. You don’t have to craft model legislation. You don’t have to file a lawsuit. You don’t have to become a constitutional expert. Instead, may I just suggest three things about how you best “lift where you stand”?

First, get informed. Visit the Church’s website at for more information. Learn about what issues are percolating in your area—in schools, in local communities, in your state legislature.

Second, get involved. Get involved in the areas where you already live, work, and associate—in professional and business organizations, local schools, and other community organizations and civic groups, within your families where children can be taught to stand up for their religious freedoms. Vote and let local, state, and national politicians know these issues are a major concern to you and others like you—then pay attention. Speak out with courage and civility when religious freedoms are threatened.

Third, and above all, be an example of the believers. Let people see the best and highest in your faith. Be a great neighbor and community member. When people understand your faith-filled life is good, they will respect you and be more inclined to listen when you say your freedoms are threatened.


Religious liberty is a God-given right. It is God-given because it is essential to all men and women exercising their agency and learning to choose between right and wrong. The only way to protect that sacred process—a process that allows us to become more like God and to fulfill our destiny—is to protect the core elements of religious freedom. You and I can do that. You and I can stand up for what is really important while showing respect and civility. And once we move outside of core religious rights, we can be prepared, in good-faith, to talk about compromise—about how we all can honor American pluralism by learning to live together in peace and respect despite our differences. Americans have been doing this for more than 200 years. It is something I am confident we can still do now.

Thank you very much.

[1] Ordinance in Relation to Religious Societies, City of Nauvoo, [Illinois,] headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 1, 1841.

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