Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Challenges and Opportunities Facing Religious Freedom in the Public Square

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Challenges and Opportunities Facing Religious Freedom in the Public Square

Article excerpt

In this opening address, I highlight several reasons why I feel our conference topic-the challenges and opportunities facing the free exercise of religion in the public sphere-merits our enthusiasm and careful consideration. I begin by pointing out some of the many ways in which religious freedom can invigorate and reinforce democratic government. I then propose a simple metaphor-the public square-that may be useful in evaluating how well various nations have nurtured the freedom of religion. By framing the inquiry in terms of the public square, we can also identify some of the challenges to free exercise both in this nation and abroad. I briefly examine the views of the Founders of the United States Constitution and then consider two of the obstacles faced in other countries in ensuring that diverse individuals can choose, embrace, or altogether reject different religions in the public square.


As I see it, religious freedom and democracy go hand in hand; each strengthens and reinforces the other in several ways. First, many believe the free exercise of religion can promote a more humanitarian and tolerant society. For example, most religions teach the importance of a power greater than one's self. The very nature of this belief puts an adherent in a position where he or she believes that the beginning and end of all creation, and the importance of life, transcend individual needs and wants.1 As one comes to understand that others are equally subordinated, there exists a greater likelihood of involvement with other members of society. One becomes more attuned to the horizontal equality that knits a community together, as well as the vertical belief in a higher power, which instills a sense of humility. A greater horizontal and vertical sense of society creates a "turning out," or a turning away from self toward society. This "turning out" phenomenon increases the possibility of genuine concern for others and is important to a society that cares for those in need.2

Second, most religions promote civic virtue and influence believers to be law abiding.3 Democratic societies generally function because the vast majority of people are willing to obey the law without enforcement action by the state.4 Even if possible, it does not make sense to allocate limited government resources to a police force capable of enforcing all laws in a non-law abiding society. Allowing people to exercise religious beliefs that tend to encourage acceptance of legal norms can therefore further a law-abiding culture, which is essential to democracy.5

Third, religious freedom preserves an important opportunity for choice, which is a key component of liberty. When each religious community is free to proclaim its tenets and teach others, there will be a wider landscape of varying religious views and a broader spectrum of choices. As a result, each individual has a greater opportunity to make a choice that best fits his or her personal needs. Religious freedom is therefore both an important end in itself as well as one of the cornerstones of self-determination, individual choice and pluralism.6 There is a profound liberty interest in being able to choose something as fundamental and personal as religion.7 Thus, with freedom to thrive, religions can help elevate the political process in society to a higher plane of democracy and individual freedom.8 Freedom to choose a religion that best fits individual needs will also result in a more stable, satisfied society.9

Finally, just as our collective viewpoint is enriched by ethnic and racial diversity, so too can diversity in religious cultures contribute to our political and social discourse.10 It is important to consider diverse perspectives in dealing with new challenges facing our society.


With this background, we can turn to assessing how well various nations have been strengthening and protecting diverse religious cultures. …

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