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All voices black and white, religious and secular, gay and straight belong in the public square in a pluralistic society, a Mormon apostle told a gathering of African-American church leaders this week.
"Our country has learned all too slowly, and forgets too easily, that we all do better when the voices of all minorities are given respect in our national dialogue," Quentin L. Cook said in an address this week at the Seymour Institute Seminar for Black Church and Policy Studies at Princeton University. "We stand to lose a great deal now if insights from religion are labeled as irrational and irrelevant in the public sphere and if individual believers are dismissed as bigots when they express deeply held beliefs about the social importance of institutions like traditional marriage."
Fairness for all, Cook said, requires that "no one should face a threat to their very existence. All should affirmatively recognize that everyone is entitled to protection for their core freedoms and interests. Everyone should be realistic and sensible. There should be more tolerance not everything is core."
A fairness policy would allow people of faith and their respective religions to worship, practice their beliefs and express them "openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism," he said. Such believers would be free from occupational, educational, professional and social discrimination due to their religious thinking. It would be acceptable for faiths to "establish doctrines, ceremonies, and requirements for membership, including ecclesiastical office and employment."
Equally important, Cook continued, a fairness banner would allow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons "to speak out, petition government, to assemble and interact ... [and] live the lifestyle they choose openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism." They would also be "free from discrimination in employment, housing and traditional places of public accommodation."
In 2015, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints successfully lobbied the Utah Legislature to adopt a landmark measure that protects LGBT individuals from housing and workplace discrimination while also safeguarding some religious liberties.
"Even when the issues are complex and emotionally charged," Cook said, "we believe that productive dialogue is possible when all involved acknowledge that the other's freedoms deserve protection."
After acknowledging that there is no analogue for how blacks have been treated in the United States from slavery to the present, Cook went on describe early Mormon persecution at the hands of their neighbors in Missouri in the 1830s.
He told of harassment, theft, loss of property, tensions, mobs, murders notably the killing of at least 17 Mormon men and boys at Hawn's Mill and finally a governmental order to drive the Latter-day Saints out of the state or "exterminate" them.
"Persecution taught the early Latter-day Saints the importance of protecting religious liberty," Cook said, "and of preserving the dignity of each individual in their own choices."
The Mormon apostle did not mention in his speech that the LDS Church banned black boys and men from its all-male priesthood and girls and women from participating in temple rituals from the mid-19th century until 1978, when leaders lifted the prohibition.
Cook did praise the African-American attendees for their role in defense of religious liberty.
"As I have studied the efforts of the Seymour Institute and, more broadly, the critical role of historically black churches and the remarkable faith leaders who have and do now preside over these congregations, I have been impressed by your willingness to stand up where others have stepped aside," he said. "There is no group of leaders who are more effective in communicating your mission and your message both to your congregations and also to the nation."
Other speakers discussed the role of black churches in the public arena.
"We must do all we can to defend those whose lives are under threat because of their faith, and we must defend those who suffer while they embrace even atheism because as it is our right to believe in God, it is their right not to believe," Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, said in a news release. "Whether Christian or Muslim or atheist, we enrich the society when we are free to act in accordance with our conscience."
In a private meeting, Blake commended Cook and the Latter-day Saints for "your strong, principled position that you are taking on these issues and on the matter of freedom of religion. It is integral to the survival of what we do that we be free to pursue it."