J. Reuben Clark Law Society

"Where Do Our Rights Come From?" and Other Insights from
Salt Lake Religious Freedom Symposium

The Salt Lake City and S.J. Quinney College of Law Chapters recently hosted a religious freedom symposium on November 12, 2016 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Attendees included practicing and non-practicing attorneys, students, and other members and leaders of the community. The symposium featured insightful messages from religious freedom practitioners, scholars, and community leaders, as briefly summarized below.

Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University, provided an engaging overview of fundamental principles about religious freedom. Religious liberty issues arise in a wide variety of contexts. Religious liberty yields real, tangible benefits to society—economic, sociological, etc.—that cannot be underestimated.

Shawn Gunnarson, First Amendment Attorney at Kirton & McConkie discussed conflicts in religious liberty, sharing insights on resolving them. Numerous forces threaten religious liberty today, particularly those emanating from secularism. However, pluralism, including the principle of “fairness for all, including people of faith,” can combat these threats.

Gary McKean, attorney and member of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, taught the significance of awareness, appreciation, and alertness in protecting religious liberties. Law and religion never need be strangers, and they cannot be. We tend to blame the courts, government, movies, media for things we see in terms of religious liberties, but the source of the problem is us: it's what we do and don't do.

James Sonne, founding director of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic—the only full-time religious liberty clinic in the United States—discussed the cultural dimensions of religious freedom. We can promote religious freedom by looking for common ground with those of other faiths, or of no faith. Some specific ways of doing this include emphasizing the “liberty” element of religious liberty, looking for the “human” dimension in religious liberty issues, and healing together from common suffering.

Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel with the Becket Fund and litigator of several high-profile religious freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, shared remarks on recent developments in religious liberty jurisprudence and personal insights on the new presidential administration’s influence on the federal judiciary. Perhaps the most important question we should ask ourselves regarding religious freedom is, “where do our rights come from?” If our rights come from the State, the State can take them away. But if those rights come from a different—and higher Source—the State cannot take those rights away.   

All of the speakers participated in a panel discussion, answering attendees’ questions about religious freedom topics. We can’t always predict when we’ll have opportunities to defend religious liberties—so we should always be prepared. We can promote religious liberty by becoming informed (reading the news, reading email updates from reputable religious freedom organizations, etc.), getting to know our legislators (not just when problems arise—but also when things are good), promoting religious freedom through social media, etc.

After the event, many attendees remarked on how much they learned—and that they hoped that others would be able to attend similar events in the future. For further information about religious freedom, visit the JRCLS Religious Freedom Committee’s religious freedom website (http://www.freedom-of-religion.org/) and consider attending future religious liberty events in your area.  

By Megan Jayne Nelson, Media Committee

Posted: November 17, 2016