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PROVO — Emma Jane Dixon was six years old when she walked barefoot from St. Louis, Missouri, to Payson while traveling with her family and other Mormon pioneers in a migration to the West.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fled religious persecution during the early days of the church, and undertook a trek thousands of miles long to settle in what is now Utah.
Dixon became sick along the way and eventually lost her hearing, but remained strong in her faith.
“That same faith is still in the marrow of our bones. It is still who we are,” said Dixon’s great-great-grandson and LDS general authority Elder L. Whitney Clayton, during his keynote speech at Brigham Young University’s annual symposium on religious freedom.
Elder Clayton, a member of the church's Presidency of the Seventy, spoke on the first day of the two-day review, which centers around the theme "Religious Freedom and the Common Good."
Religious beliefs are as much a part of many people’s core identity as race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation and should be offered at least as much protection, Clayton added.
“If you have concluded that certain favored classes deserve special legal protection and accommodation, but that people of faith do not because they have chosen their beliefs and can just as easily unchoose them, I would ask you to reconsider,” he said.
Elder Clayton pleaded with those who believe that social respect and legal safeguards are an important part of maintaining constitutional human rights to realize that same respect should be extended to religious people and their core beliefs, even if those beliefs may be “deeply unpopular.”
Employers should “reasonably accommodate” employees’ religious practices and government should never threaten business owners’ licenses for expressing religious convictions, he said, referencing a recent Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker who wouldn't make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Clayton also praised what has come to be known as the “Utah Compromise,” a bill passed by the Utah Legislature in 2015 that banned discrimination against LGBT people in housing and employment, protected rights of religious expression and layed out exemptions for religious institutions.
The church’s interest in religious freedom comes from a history of persecution, Elder Clayton said. That history made members sensitive to laws and practices that deny believers the right to participate as equals in society.
The LDS Church's story is one of a quest for a place to gather as families and communities to practice religious beliefs free from government interference, he explained. Reasonably allowing parents to teach their children what they believe to be correct, and letting institutions like religious schools operate on their own terms, are paramount.
“Government must not be allowed to marginalize and delegitimize religion by confining it to purely private spheres, as if it were some sort of infection to be quarantined,” Elder Clayton said.
Religion remains one of the greatest sources of human identity and meaning for millions globally, and the LDS experience is just one example of that reality, he added.
“I believe that no democratic government … can ignore the moral imperative to respect the fundamental right to freely, openly and peacefully exercise one’s right to practice religion ... to be who one truly is, faith and all, in the private and public spaces where people live out their lives,” Elder Clayton said.
Other symposium presenters include fellow keynote speaker Emma Green, a staff writer for The Atlantic; husband and wife Terryl and Fiona Givens, authors of "The God Who Weeps" and "The Crucible of Doubt;" Islamic Center of Nashville resident scholar and Islam In 500 founder Ossama Bahloul; and Deseret News religion reporter Kelsey Dallas, among others.