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Why you shouldn't blame millennials for religious freedom's image crisis

Legal scholars at this week's Religious Freedom Annual Review say religious liberty advocates need to do a better job promoting this First Amendment right.

PROVO — Young Americans are less engaged with organized religion than their elders, and that's a problem for more than just churches, according to speakers at this year's Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University.

The rise of young religious "nones" makes it harder to make a case for religious freedom, since fewer and fewer Americans understand why it matters for them.

"There is less of an innate understanding or respect for religious experiences as something that should be treated differently than any other kind of belief or values system," said Michael Wear, the author of "Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America."

He described research he conducted about which religious practices should be considered "extreme." Participants were worried about things like prayer before a meal in a restaurant or asking someone to attend church with you, activities which were incredibly common just a few decades ago.

A separate survey found Americans younger than 30 are about 10 percentage points less likely than older adults to say religious freedom should protect all faith groups equally, as the Deseret News reported in 2017.

However, that doesn't mean young people should be blamed for today's religious freedom-related clashes, speakers said. Those who support this First Amendment right haven't done enough to explain its value to the world.

"There is a need and a real opportunity for religious freedom to be framed differently and to be more clearly understood," said Elder Patrick Kearon, a member of the Presidency of the Quorum of the Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during his keynote address at the event this week.

Attendees listen as Elder Patrick Kearon, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives the keynote address at the Religious Freedom Annual Review at the BYU Conference Center in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, June 19, 20
Attendees listen as Elder Patrick Kearon, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives the keynote address at the Religious Freedom Annual Review at the BYU Conference Center in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Too often, religious leaders and legal experts act as if religious freedom is an obvious concept. They don't take care to explain what would be lost if it went away, said Dan Cox, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

"I think the argument that '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," he said.

Additionally, some religious freedom advocates seem inconsistent, Wear said. They fight hard for protections for themselves, but don't speak up when a Muslim death row inmate is put to death without access to an imam or a Sikh soldier can't wear his religious head covering.

"The importance of religious freedom advocates having integrity as they go about their work is just so essential, especially for younger generations," said Wear, who recently launched a podcast on religion and the 2020 election.

Faith leaders need to speak more openly about how religious freedom protections benefit their service work, Elder Kearon said. Without it, it would be harder for religious groups to operate food pantries, shelter victims of natural disasters or help refugees find new homes.

"We experience the benefit of (religious freedom) all the time, but we rarely see how it actually works," he said.

Faith groups should be known for working for the common good, not just their own interests.

"We must not cloister ourselves with others who think like us and congregations that believe like us," he said.

Without better public engagement, religious freedom will continue to seem like something "sinister" or discriminatory to a large share of the population, said Asma Uddin, author of the forthcoming book, "When Islam is not a Religion: Inside America's Fight for Religious Freedom."

"It gets caught up in politicized (debates). It's seen as a defense of beliefs that are often considered backward (or) bigoted," she said.

In reality, religious freedom is a "fundamentally liberal value," Uddin added. It protects all kinds of beliefs, not just theologically conservative teachings.

"We have to take the discourse of religious freedom and root it in the ability of humans of whatever persuasion to think and act freely," she said.

Chelsea Langston Bombino, director of the Center for Public Justice's Sacred Sector program, compared that work to a podcast's decision to shift away from having an explicitly religious focus. Rebranding around the name "On Being" helped the podcast appeal to a broader group of people and ask questions like "What does it mean to be human?" instead of just "What's your religious faith?"

"We're all searching for these answers around what it means to be human," she said.

It's possible to get young people interested in religious freedom. It will just take a little creative thinking and some constructive action to make it happen.

"When young people understand why this freedom is crucial to their aspirations … they will be inspired to act to strengthen and preserve religious freedom," Elder Kearon said.