On top of that the ongoing efforts of Elder Dallin H. Oaks has earned recognition by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who awarded him the the Canterbury Medal which honors individuals who show 'courage in the defense of religious freedom'. If you check the Newsroom on the subject, you'll see there are several links to talks by General Authorities and others on the importance of maintaining this freedom in society.
The principle is not new to Latter-Day Saints of course; we've held religious liberty as critical from the start of the Church. In the early days of the church, many Federal, State, and local leaders failed again and again to protect the Saints from having their religious liberty violated over and over.
Many times government authorities were directly involved in the persecutions the Saints faced, even to the point of making it legal to kill a person just for being a Mormon. Even though the Church was founded in a land that enshrined religious liberty in it's constitution, they were still forced to flee to the Utah Territory for their own safety. There they were able to grow in numbers and establish themselves and gather their strength for a time, but even after that the government showed it had both the will and the power to persecute the Saints and violate their rights even further using polygamy as its justification to deny citizens their rights and freedom, and even dis-incorporate the church temporarily.
This history plays a big role in creating a deep commitment among Mormons to maintaining religious liberty, but for at least the last 65 years it hasn't been something many Mormons have had to fight to maintain. It was a value we shared with society. Times have changed though, and if we don't fight for it, we are very likely to lose it.
The primary threat against religious liberty (as I see it) is the world's view that upholding God's standards on marriage and the family is evil. I talked about this at length before and won't go over it again. Coupled with this however is a militant atheism that arrogantly presumes any person holding any kind of faith in any kind of God is mentally weak or unbalanced, comparable to an adult who still believes in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy. And also it seem more and more common that people confuse freedom from religion with freedom of religion. This leads them to think that it is perfectly OK to force a person to act contrary to their conscience in the workplace or public arena, and only within the walls of their home can they really practice their faith.
Requiring a Catholic pharmacist to dispense medication they object to on moral grounds is no different than requiring an atheist to say a public prayer in Christ's name. Both are wrong, both are violations of religious freedom.
In D&C 134 verse 2 it states:
We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.
Here is the real reason why freedom of religion is vital. Any government that will not uphold it sows the seeds of their own destruction.
The reason for that lies in the very nature of faith. Upholding religious liberty avoids putting somebody in the position of having to choose between their loyalty to God and their loyalty to the state. If somebody`s devotion to God is second to their devotion to the state, then the state is in fact their god. Those who put their devotion to God first (as it should be) will put the commands of God before the commands of the state, and the result is conflict that has the potential to become violence and turn into civil unrest. Religion has often been blamed for most of the wars of history. The truth is that a lack of respect for religious freedom was at the root of those wars.
Also, freedom of religion is directly linked to freedom of speech and freedom of association. If religious beliefs are used to justify limits on other freedoms, why stop there? It is a short hop to making certain political viewpoints justification for the same treatment.
But what should we, as Latter-Day Saints do if (when?) we find ourselves caught in such a dilemma between God and government? There are a number of examples in scripture and church history that are very instructive on this and I will write about these in my next post.