A leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told a gathering of several hundred lawyers, judges and religious leaders in California today that secularists and religionists with opposing views should seek balance and accommodation with each other rather than total victory for one side only.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made the comment during an address to the second annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California.
“There should be no belligerence between religion and government,” Elder Oaks said. “Governments and their laws can provide the essential protections for believers and religious organizations and their activities. Believers and religious organizations should recognize this and refrain from labeling governments and laws and officials as if they were inevitable enemies.”
Elder Oaks said that those skeptical of or hostile to believers and their organizations “should recognize the reality—borne out by experience—that religious principles and teachings and their organizations are here to stay and can help create the conditions in which public laws and government institutions and their citizens can flourish.”
Although not mentioning Kim Davis by name, in a clear reference to the Kentucky county clerk who refused on religious grounds to issue a marriage license to a gay couple, Elder Oaks said public officials who take an oath have a responsibility to support the constitution and their local laws.
“Office holders remain free to draw upon their personal beliefs and motivations and advocate their positions in the public square. But when acting as public officials they are not free to apply personal convictions — religious or other — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices,” he said. “A county clerk’s recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle.”
Kim Davis of Rowan County stopped issuing marriage licenses after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June legalized same-sex marriage. She spent five days in jail for refusing to obey a federal judge’s ruling ordering her to issue the licenses.
But Elder Oaks said that far more significant violations of the rule of law and democratic self-government occur when governors or attorneys general refuse to enforce or defend a law they oppose on personal grounds — secular or religious. “Constitutional duties, including respect for the vital principle of separation of powers, are fundamental to the rule of law. Government officials must not apply these duties selectively according to their personal preferences — whatever their source,” he said.
“We all want to live together in happiness, harmony, and peace,” Elder Oaks said. “I have viewed the boundary between church and state from both sides. … For me, questions about the relationship between government and religion are not academic.”
Elder Oaks worked as a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court, a prosecutor in Illinois and justice of the Utah Supreme Court before becoming an apostle in 1984.
Rejecting the idea of a wall between church and state, Elder Oaks said a more apt metaphor — reinforced by various decisions of the United States Supreme Court — is a “curtain that defines boundaries but is not a barrier to the passage of light and love and mutual support from one side to another.”
“Parties with different views on the relationship between church and state should advocate and act with civility. … We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails,” he said. “We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to boycotts, firings, and intimidation of our adversaries.”
Elder Oaks said that on the “big issues” that divide adversaries, religionists should not seek a veto over all nondiscrimination laws that offend their religion, and the proponents of nondiscrimination should not seek a veto over all assertions of religious freedom.
“Both sides in big controversies like this should seek to understand the other’s position and seek practical accommodations that provide fairness for all and total dominance for neither,” he said.
Elder Oaks cited the example of the 2015 Utah Legislature, which, “in a head-on conflict over individual free exercise and enforced nondiscrimination in housing and employment,” crafted a compromise position under the banner of “fairness for all.”
“It gave neither position all that it sought but granted both positions benefits that probably could not have been obtained without the kind of balancing that is possible in the law-making branch but not in the judiciary.”
Elder Oaks warned against “extreme voices that are heard from contending positions.”
“Extreme voices polarize and create resentment and fear by emphasizing what is nonnegotiable and by suggesting that the desired outcome is to disable the adversary and achieve absolute victory. Such outcomes are rarely attainable and never preferable to living together in mutual understanding and peace.”