Where in the world would you find a professional gathering of attorneys who, when they were talking about covenants and obligations, they meant the ones they owe to God?  The answer is at a recent conference in Washington D.C., where more than 500 LDS lawyers and law students had signed up to meet at the Hotel Monaco and the Georgetown Law Center on Friday and Saturday, February 17 and 18, for the first J. Reuben Clark Law Society Conference.

Lew Cramer

Conference chairman Lew Cramer said that, far from detracting from the long hours so often demanded by the law, “We affirm the strength brought to the law by a lawyer’s personal religious conviction.  We have common obligations to serve and to elevate others and to become a growing source of righteousness.”

In fact, the theme of the J. Reuben Clark International Law Society is “We strive through public service and professional excellence to promote fairness and virtue, founded upon the rule of law.”

If all the attorneys of the world adopted such sentiments, lawyer jokes would soon dry up, but gathered here were LDS attorneys who want to make that a reality.

The J. Reuben Clark International Law Society has 8,000 members, including 60 student chapters.  Obviously, law students do not have to have attended law school at BYU to belong.  In fact, according to Lew, it is surprising how many LDS students are in law schools all over the country.

Example:  The law school at Creighton has 15 LDS students who belong to the J. Reuben Clark International Law Society.

Joseph Bentley

In the past the LDS students have had conferences, but the LDS attorneys have only had a traditional Rex Lee Award and luncheon.  The conference this year, according to Joseph Bentley, president of the group, marks the beginning of conferences that will be held every year.

Luncheon speaker was Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General of the United States.

Other speakers at the event include an all-star lineup: Elder Cree-L Kofford, Emeritus Member of the First Quorum of Seventy; Michael K. Young, President of the University of Utah; William F. Atkin, Associate General Counsel of the Church; Gene C. Schaerr (who moderated a panel on being a great advocate); Timothy E. Flanagan, formerly with the White House and now General Counsel for Tyco International; Boyd J. Black, Associate General Counsel of the Church; and D. James Gordon, Associate Dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Law students at the Saturday conference heard from Thomas B. Griffith of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University; Father Robert F. Drinian, former Dean of the Boston College of Law School; and Cheryl B. Preston, a law professor at BYU.

Here are some highlights from the conference:

Elder Cree-L Kofford

In the opening address of the conference, Elder Kofford said, “As Latter-day Saint attorneys we have some things to be aware of that are not true for other people.”

Since he was speaking to attorneys, he said he’d put it in their language, “You’ve made contracts with the Lord over your life. First of all, you will remember that special day in a sacred place where in a solemn and dignified manner you committed to live the law of consecration.”  This means, he said, that you give all that you have and all that you are to the blessed sacred cause of the gospel.

Elder Cree-L Kofford

“Each is entitled to individual inspiration to know what that means in our personal lives.  One size does not fit all,” he said. “His love and compassion are such that there is room for each of us.  He is willing to tailor to our own circumstances that which we have contracted to do.”

“Many of the contracts you’ve entered into are multiparty. You knelt across an altar in a sacred place.  If you are man, you said to a young woman and to your Father in Heaven that you would take her to be your sweetheart and wife for eternity.  You promised her and you promised your father that you would cherish and protect her and you would accept her as an equal, full-voting partner.  If you are a woman, you gave yourself to your husband. You said, I will sustain him, I will support him.  I will recognize his responsibility to provide the sustaining priesthood authority in our home.

“You entered into additional convenants.  Together as a husband and wife you committed yourself to multiply and replenish the earth… We understood there that in order to receive the blessings, we also contracted away various rights. You contracted away not to have children.  You contracted away your freedom to use all of your time in your own selfish ambitions. 

“Can you practice the law under those confines?  Not only can you practice it, you can excel in it. You can reach the pinnacle of success in our profession and still do all that you have contracted to do.  You must do so in recognition of your contract, for the moment you cease to recognize and obey the terms of your contract you cease to have the qualities that will make you an outstanding lawyer.

“How are we ever to compete with those who have no standards to which we have ascribed?  How are we compete with those who can practice seven days a week, 14 hours a day?  You are not more brilliant than they are.  You can excel because you can have the power of revelation.  In Doctrine & Covenants 88:67 we read, “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light…”

“Light in other places is called pure intelligence,” said Elder Kofford. “And that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.”

“There were times when I would have failed but for the comprehension provided by the spirit,” he said.  “There isn’t a man or a woman with experience in this room who hasn’t felt that being filled with light and suddenly comprehending things that we otherwise wouldn’t have comprehended. 

“It will be with you as your whole life is turned to living in the way you have covenanted to live.

Religious Freedom – A Global Perspective

Michael K. Young

Michael K. Young has twice chaired the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was designed as a watchdog group to propose ways in which the U.S. Foreign Policy could be better designed to advance freedom of conscience and religion around the world.

In that capacity he has traveled to many counties and sat in on sobering interviews with people who have been persecuted for their religion.  These were people who had spent years in prison for daring to gather two or three people to pray together, Christians who had been despised and confined for wearing crosses, Muslims who had had limbs hacked off for what authorities termed were wrong practices or beliefs.  They were from China, Viet Nam, Sudan – the places in the news where atrocities happen when people dare stand up for conscience’ sake.

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“What became clear to me,” said President Young, “is that it is not accidental that freedom of religion is often called the first freedom.  It is profoundly fundamental to people – how they define themselves in relation to the universe, to others and to their children.  It is how they order their lives.  The way a government is willing to respect religious freedom is the touchstone for defining the moral basis of a government. 

“It is a powerful right to protect because it presupposes an allegiance to something higher than the state.  It’s like the canary in the coal mine.  It is the first right that is nibbled around at the edges and then brutally attacked by governments when they feel insecure.

“Among the biggest problems we face is articulating human rights standards that are acceptable to people of a variety of faiths.  One of the big failures of the academy is the unwillingness to take religion seriously as a political, economic and social force.

“When we lived in New York, I didn’t want my children to walk down in Times Square and have them see things there that would make it more difficult to live their religion.  We want to be able to live our lives consistent with our most deeply-held religious beliefs.  The problem is where do you draw the line?

“Those are hard issues, but issues we only can wrestle with if we take seriously the matter of religion.

“The problem with freedom of religion is not that we take it too seriously, but that we do not take it seriously enough. We will have difficulty finding the answer to those questions if we don’t credit it with legitimate discourse.”

William F. Atkin

Associate General Counsel of the Church specializing in international affairs, William F. Atkin told about a visit he made to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  It was a quiet day, with few people, and as he saw the gruesome story spelled out in such graphic detail, he began to feel a heaviness.  It was unrelenting until he got to one of the last exhibits which told the stories of the rescuers, who though not Jewish themselves, had taken individual risk to save and shelter the persecuted people.

William F. (Bill) Atkin

Researchers, he explained, had interviewed the rescuers to try to determine what distinguished them from the bystanders who had merely stood by.  What was there about those individuals who risked their own lives to save another? 

The most marked thing was that they had a personality type-what researchers called an altruistic personality.  They cared not about themselves, but about others.

Brother Atkin said, “The same principle that would trample on the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of anybody else.  I may enjoy absolute freedom, but does everybody else in my community enjoy these same rights?

Addressing the attorneys he said, “We have been trained in constitutional principles, in legal systems and procedures.  What are we doing to protect the right of religious liberty? 

That is my cal to action to us as Latter-day Saint lawyers. Do not be content that we have those blessings and liberties, if others don’t.  Be as concerned that others have religious liberties, and then we will always have religious liberties in our lives.”

Bill Atkin (left) and Michael Young

Brother Atkin quoted Joseph Smith, “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.” (DHC 5:498)

Involvement in Public Policy Issues

Timothy E. Flanagan

Timothy Flanagan has firsthand experience in Washington political circles, having worked as counsel in the Bush White House.  He said, “If you lined up people who have political influence against the wall, you would have a great many wonderful Jewish people.  Do you know how many Latter-day Saints there would be?  Only a few. There are roughly the same number of Jews in the U.S. as Latter-day Saints, but do we have the same political impact?  I don’t think so.

Brother Flanagan indicated that we have something to learn about how to have impact on public policy. He said, “Start simply with things that you are interested in, things that you know about.  Start where you are by developing an affiliation for a political party.  In our two party system, your influence is magnified if you attach yourself to a party.  Just because somebody disagrees with you 20% of the time doesn’t make him your enemy.  He is your ally.”

“Another important way to have impact is in political giving.  The act of political giving is not an intrinsically dirty act.  It is an act of expression of our principles.  I’m willing to admit that our system is far from perfect and we have a great many problems as money touches politics.  It is an observed fact that many Latter-day Saints view giving to candidates as something they just don’t want to do.  But we can build on a cornerstone of integrity. You bring to this process your principles and the world is hungry for those principles.”   

Tim Flanagan

Brother Flanagan emphasized that the mark of any political work should be quality. “Too much of the effort that people put into political work is just shoddy.  It is substandard.  You will stand out if you put true quality into what you do.   

Boyd J. Black

Boyd J. Black, Associate General Counsel for the Church, answered the much-asked question, “How does the Church approach issues of public policy?” He said, “The Church’s primary purpose is to invite all to come unto Christ.  Only the First Presidency determines what issues the Church will be involved in institutionally.

“Officers are lobbied frequently to have the Church become involved in public policy issues, yet very rarely do they get involved.  There are many worthy causes that the Church chooses not to be involved in.  We try to be friends with everyone.

Boyd Black

“More and more Church members are organizing on public policy matters.  That is a good thing to work to stop the moral decline.  However, in organizing on a collective basis, the guidelines are to seek a strong and broad base of leadership beyond the Latter-day Saints.  In that way our effectiveness is leveraged and the chance of incorrect attribution of the group’s actions to the Church is lowered. 

“The Church attempts very hard to keep politically neutral.  Silence by the Church should never be considered as endorsement.”