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Provo • U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake said Thursday that progress has been made protecting religious freedom, but recent tests, including White House policies, are challenging the liberties of minority faiths.

Speaking at Brigham Young University, the Arizona Republican said he was encouraged by the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, while also expressing concern about President Donald Trump's travel bans on citizens from Muslim-majority countries.

"This process will take time and the courts will remain a gamble," Flake said at a conference on the topic at BYU's Provo campus. "Given the political environment, measurable achievements in Congress will also remain an iffy proposition."

Flake recalled visiting an Islamic center with his family after learning of then-presidential candidate Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

He drew parallels between modern anti-Muslim prejudices and historical persecution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — of which Flake is a member — after the Utah-based faith's founding in 1830, and he stressed the need for solidarity among religions.

"We must stand for religious freedom in this country regardless of the prevailing political winds," Flake said. "The [United States'] founders understood that the protection of religious freedom was essential. It was essential then; it is essential now."

Flake was the keynote speaker for the Religious Freedom Annual Review, a two-day conference sponsored by BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies. The event, which continues Friday at the BYU Conference Center, features speakers, panels and workshops related to religious liberty.

Brett Scharffs, director of the law and religion studies center, said religious freedom is a central component of the LDS Church, which owns and operates BYU.

Scharffs recounted stories of the faith's founding by Joseph Smith in New York and the violent attacks on the young leader and his fellow believers that followed the nascent religion westward.

Mormons should remember that history, Scharffs said, to better extend reciprocity and respect to other minority religions.

"For the LDS Church, the era of persecution has largely passed," Scharffs said. "But for others in many parts of the world, it continues to this day."

Flake said people should never be forced by their government to violate their religious beliefs, and that he is grateful to live in a country where he can exercise his faith freely.

He spoke of his experience as a Mormon missionary in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and remarked on LDS growth in previously isolated areas such as Cuba and Botswana.

Returning to Trump's policies, Flake spoke against reinstating the travel and business embargoes on Cuba loosened by the Obama administration, joking that U.S. tourism would be a more effective weapon against the country's Communist regime led by the late Fidel Castro and his brother — and successor — Raul.

"If you really wanted to punish the Castro brothers, we should just make them deal with spring break once or twice," Flake said. "That ought to do it."

Other speakers and panelists Thursday focused on changing U.S. religious demographics — with younger generations abandoning organized religion in increasing numbers — and the proper role of religiosity in education and business settings.

Candace Andersen, a member of California's Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, talked about her experience representing her Mormon faith in politics, fending off campaign opponents who labeled her "Sarah Palin on steroids" and working with a local school board member to halt the development of a casino in her county.

"It isn't the loudest voice that I'm listening to," Andersen said. "It's the reasonable voice."

Andersen also described the controversy surrounding California Proposition 8, which sought to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples and was ultimately overturned in court. Anderson was a city mayor during the Prop 8 campaign and the only Bay Area mayor to endorse the initiative.

She described it as a "very challenging time" that forced her to balance respect for her gay and lesbian friends with her religious views of marriage being limited to the union of a man and woman.

"I don't think anyone should be discriminated against," she said. "We just happen to disagree on how you define the relationship."

Twitter: @bjaminwood —

Conference in Provo

The Religious Freedom Annual Review continues Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Brigham Young University's International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Single-day registration is $40 for the general public and $10 for students and educators.