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ELDER OAKS BACKS CHURCHES' RIGHT TO VIEWS

Churches and their leaders should be as free to voice opinions on public policy and candidates as are environmental, labor or other groups, an LDS Church apostle says.

However, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve says that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would - as a matter of prudence - likely seldom intervene in politics, no matter how much freedom it has or should have to do otherwise.But he told the BYU Management Society of Washington this weekend he worries that courts and laws are hindering people from expressing their religious beliefs in public policy debates, contending that violates separation of church and state.

"No person with values based on religious beliefs should apologize for taking those beliefs into the public square," said Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice - who was long considered a top contender for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination.

He said no one thinks twice if an environmental group or labor union tries to influence politics based on their beliefs. "I submit a church should be able to do the same," Oaks said, adding he was expressing his own views and not those of his church.

Oaks said many laws are based on "absolute values" emanating from religious beliefs - such as that murder and adultery are bad - but such absolutes are eroding because religious people are less able to defend their beliefs without being criticized as violating church/state separation.

"Society continually legislates morality. The question is whose morality and whose legislation," Oaks said. "Religious leaders ought to have as many privileges as other leaders."

At the same time, he said church leaders must be careful because "politics and religion have different goals and methods. Each can be corrupted by too much involvement with the other."

For example, he said it would be wrong for a church to excommunicate a public official who takes political action contrary to a position of the church. He noted as example that former Utah Gov. Calvin Rampton said his church membership was never threatened for vetoing a Sunday closing law the church supported.

Oaks said the appropriate place for the church and its members to show any displeasure would be at the ballot box, but Oaks said churches that try to influence elections at all now would lose their tax-exempt status.

He said that "denies to churches privileges available to other organizations."

Oaks also disputed claims by some who say churches and their leaders should stay out of politics because their believers would blindly follow whatever they say.

"I doubt any religious leader in 20th century America has such a grip on believers that they cannot make a reasoned opinion in the privacy of the ballot booth," Oaks said.

He also said he finds it ironic that the United States seems to try to distance itself from religious views while officials in Eastern Europe have told him recently that they "need help of churches to rebuild the moral base destroyed by Communism."

Oaks concluded, "The government need not be hostile to religion or pretend to ignore God."