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“Today conflicts with religious liberty are often framed as being in conflict with individual rights. I have heard some say that the phrase “religious freedom” essentially means the “freedom to discriminate against those who aren’t religious.” Of course, this is not an accurate representation of what religious liberty or freedom means, but we clearly have work to do to overcome that fear.
Rebranding the religious liberty movement and the way we communicate about it begins with a very clear recognition that religious liberty and individual expression are not a zero-sum game—there is room to protect both rights without compromising religious values. And at its core, if we complicate how we treat others with criteria that they hold or live by our same beliefs, we will fail.”
The Congressman’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here today. My name is John Curtis and I represent Utah’s third district in the US House of Representatives.
I’m excited to speak to you today about Religious Liberty, a topic near and dear to my heart. Like so many others here in Utah, I’m a direct descendant of Brigham Young. (that was a polygamy joke).
After the death of the prophet Joseph Smith, Brigham Young led the Saints (and future Utahns) the rest of the way West, until they settled here in Utah. Those early pioneers sought liberty, and a place they could live free from persecution. In many ways, I feel like the journey of our forefathers to Utah mirrored the journey of our great American forefathers who came across the sea in search of their own freedom and liberty. In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol hangs one of my favorite paintings, The Embarkation of the Pilgrims” commemorating that incredible journey of faith and sacrifice.
Those pilgrims and settlers who followed to our shores from all around the world dreamed of a shining city on a hill, where freedom from tyranny and opportunity for prosperity would be accompanied by religious liberty unlike they had ever known before.
That path to establishing the American idea of religious liberty was not a simple one, even after the pilgrims landed on these shores. But many of the great minds that built our country and the constitutional system that governs it, felt that they had been guided by God, and wanted to ensure that future generations of Americans had the freedom to seek that same guidance with the free exercise of religion.
George Washington didn’t require soldiers in his Continental army to take a religious oath, but he did encourage his soldiers to be mindful of the power of spirituality. He wrote in a general order that he “expects, of all Officers, and Soldiers, not engaged in actual duty, a punctual attendance on divine Service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.”
In his farewell address, he wrote “Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington had a deep passion for religious study and spirituality that influenced many he came in contact with during the founding of our great nation.
Thomas Jefferson is widely recognized as one of the fathers of religious freedom. On his gravestone, he listed three accomplishments he most wanted to be remembered for: drafting the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That statute served as an inspiration for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson worked together on that document and its passage with James Madison—we remember him as the Father of the Constitution—who passionately argued that religious freedom was one of the fundamental rights the first patriots had bled for in the revolution.
In drafting the first amendment, the founders sought to address two key points, writing “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” From the founding of our nation and in fact a very reason for our founding was that religious freedom—the liberty to both worship to one’s choosing or not worship at all—be seen as fundamental. Central. Essential to our American experiment.
In recent decades Congress has again taken opportunities to speak out and affirm support of religious liberty.
In 1990, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that prohibited the government from substantially burdening a persons exercise of religion unless doing so was necessary to further a “compelling government interest.”
In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which proclaimed “the right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.”
Today, the landscape is changing. Fewer and fewer young Americans are engaged with religion than the generations before them. Religious “nones,” a shorthand for those individuals who self-identify as atheists or agnostics or those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” make up roughly 23 percent of the US adult population. More than any other age group, 35 percent of millennials are religious “nones.” This growth of religious unaffiliating is growing in many demographics but is particularly strong for the entire millennial generation.
Because of this, it becomes much more difficult to make a case for religious freedom, as fewer Americans—and particularly those who are raising or will raise the coming generations—understand why religious liberty actually matters for them.
I strongly agree with the words of Elder Patrick Kearon, who recently spoke of the “need and real opportunity for religious freedom to be framed differently and to be more clearly understood…. ‘This is the way we’ve always done things’ or ‘This is the way we’ve always believed’ is not a particularly persuasive argument for young people…”
I believe those of us who understand the intrinsic value of religion, and of the fundamental importance of religious freedom, have a responsibility to fight for it and to make a case for it in our communities. To do so successfully in our current political and social climate, I believe we need to rebrand the religious liberty movement. Make no mistake, the principles we are fighting for, enshrined in our founding documents and painstakingly established over centuries before that, are no different, but the way we communicate about their value must reach beyond its current audience as so many around our country and around the world leave religion behind.
Today conflicts with religious liberty are often framed as being in conflict with individual rights. I have heard some say that the phrase “religious freedom” essentially means the “freedom to discriminate against those who aren’t religious.” Of course, this is not an accurate representation of what religious liberty or freedom means, but we clearly have work to do to overcome that fear.
Rebranding the religious liberty movement and the way we communicate about it begins with a very clear recognition that religious liberty and individual expression are not a zero-sum game—there is room to protect both rights without compromising religious values. And at its core, if we complicate how we treat others with criteria that they hold or live by our same beliefs, we will fail.
In recent years, some of the most heated debates over religious liberty have come in tandem with individual rights of members of the LGBTQ community.
I feel an urgency to pause here and state clearly, unequivocally on the record, that I believe the LGBTQ community is a critical part of the fabric of our country and our state. They are deserving of our unequivocal love and respect, and their contributions here in Utah are utterly invaluable.
As the mayor of Provo, it was important to me that the entire community felt this wide-spread love. I prioritized inclusion and sought to ensure my administration did everything possible to recognize the intrinsic value of all our citizens, including our LGBTQ community. I fought hard against discrimination and was grateful for my association with organizations like Provo Pride, Equality Utah, Encircle, and others who I was honored to stand with to ensure our policies in City Hall reflected the love in our hearts.
Perhaps even more than that, I’m grateful for the associations and relationships in my life that have helped me better understand the experience of the LGBTQ community and have been patient with a conservative, religious, Utah boy who grew up in the 60’s and took longer to develop the appropriate empathy than he would’ve liked. I say again, I am incredibly grateful for the contribution of the LGBTQ community and will always stand with them in love and support.
Our current political climate is polarizing, and so we face a unique challenge of balancing needed protections for the LGBTQ community with the importance of protecting religious liberty—one of the fundamental rights enshrined at the founding of our nation. But I believe this compromise is possible because of what we saw here at home with the “Utah compromise,” –historic legislation that effectively balanced the absolute rights of both LGBTQ individuals as human beings and religious institutions protected by the First Amendment.
In Congress, this debate has occasionally missed the mark and I am disappointed that we have not followed in the footsteps of Utah. The Equality Act, which we debated and the House passed earlier this year, failed to strike the balance that Utah worked carefully to achieve. Instead of seeking a compromise between the two competing interests of religious liberty and individual rights, sponsors of the bill treated it as mutually exclusive, overturning decades of important, balancing protections like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, otherwise known as RFRA. In Utah, we are intimately familiar with RFRA because one of its champions was our own Senator Orrin Hatch. He worked on that compromise with now Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy, who will long be remembered as the Liberal Lion of the Senate. Casting that historic compromise aside was short-sighted, and a strong indication that the will for cooperation and collaboration on this sensitive issue might be weak in the current Congress.
During the Equality Act debate, I introduced commonsense amendments to try and restore the balance represented in that original compromise—to ensure that protections for religious institutions remained—but my amendments were unfortunately ignored, along with the amendments from many other representatives who sought to salvage this moment and turn it into an opportunity to make important progress, rather than make political statements.
This, like many other debates that have happened in the House this year, amounted to little more than legislative gas-lighting—taking an issue where overwhelming bipartisan compromise is possible and moving it far to the left while attacking Republicans for not supporting the original shared goals that we do in fact share. I was frustrated that my colleagues disregarded willing partners such as myself, who were and still are anxious to work with them to chart a path forward on the issues that matter.
Despite this, I believe there is still a real opportunity to continue cementing the critical balance between religious liberty and individual rights. There’s also tremendous urgency. As Congress fails to address these issues, we see that they still get decided but by our judicial system rather than our legislative one. As more and more cases move forward just like Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby did, we must recognize that firm guidance for rules of the road are necessary. I fear that our hesitancy to engage on this issue sets us up for a missed opportunity to carefully craft a balance that may not be achieved by the courts down the road.
Here in Utah, we have an opportunity to continue leading the way and fostering the religious liberty rebrand to reengage those who don’t put a high value on religious freedom. I believe the key to that is ensuring that our North Star in this debate is the notion that the worth of every soul is great. That every person has intrinsic value, and the right to be who they want to be without impediment from government, society, and our communities.
While we fight for that love and recognition for members of our LGBTQ community, religious communities must also be fought for and continually protected. Part of that fight extends to pushing back against the domestic terrorism we’ve seen in recent months against places of faith like mosques and synagogues. A threat to any person of faith on our shores is a threat to all faith on our shores. Those of us who believe in the deeply American value of religious liberty have an absolute responsibility to stand with our brothers and sisters of faith against those who would quash religious expression in any form.
I want to close with a quote that I know President Larsen also appreciates, by Alexis de Tocqueville: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
It cannot be an option for us to cease to be great, and the fight to protect religious liberty is absolutely critical to not only that greatness but also to our American identity and our continued peace and prosperity here in the United States.”
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