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How this author hopes new book will offer additional insights on religious freedom and create more dialogue

SALT LAKE CITY — Why would a Latter-day Saint convert be interested in stories about a Catholic priest facing prison time, a determined atheist, a persecuted Native American and a controversial Christian baker?

The common denominator is religious freedom, and each tale illustrates insightful points in understanding a complicated topic that some defend and most mischaracterize, author Steven T. Collis said while discussing his new book, "Deep Convictions: True Stories of Ordinary Americans Fighting for the Freedom to Live Their Beliefs" (Shadow Mountain, 378 pages).

Steven T. Collis is the author of "Deep Convictions," which features true stories and a message about religious freedom.
Steven T. Collis is the author of "Deep Convictions," which features true stories and a message about religious freedom.
Provided by Shadow Mountain

"Part of it is I just love telling stories," Collis said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. "The other aspect of it is I wanted people to understand religious freedom more than they do. I wanted to help people understand what it has done in our country historically and what it should mean to us today."

In addition to being an author, Collis is an attorney from Colorado who has taught law courses at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and has represented a variety of religious organizations. He recently accepted a position as a research fellow and executive director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, where his primary focus will be researching and publishing.

While he could have written about any number of examples, Collis decided on four stories he found especially compelling.

In 1813, a Catholic priest in New York City faced prison after he refused to give up the name of a jewelry thief who admitted to a crime during a confession.

In 1959, an atheist that wanted to become a Maryland notary public fought all the way to the Supreme Court because the state required him to sign an oath that said he believed in God.

In 1989, a member of the Klamath Tribe walked into the highest court in the country to plead for freedom to practice his beliefs after years of opposition.

Finally, in 2017, John Phillips, a Christian baker in Denver, had his beliefs and actions challenged by the Supreme Court when he declined to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

These stories teach lessons about why religious liberty is relevant today, Collis said.

"Today I think the most confusing aspect is people hear the term 'religious freedom' and they think it's a code word to allow for bigotry, particularly against the LGBTQ community. The reality is that it couldn't be further from the truth," Collis said. "Religious liberty is constantly playing a role in our lives and we don't even realize it. The majority of cases involving religious freedom have absolutely nothing to do with the LGBTQ rights issues. It has to do with things like churches’ abilities to select their own ministers, it has to do with prisoners' rights. It has to do with a whole bunch of issues that have nothing to do with the hot button issues that we always see in the press."

Two pivotal events played a role in Collis discovering his passion for religious freedom.

The first happened about 25 years ago when Collis was a high school student in his home state of New Mexico.

Growing up in a community that was mostly Catholic, he became interested in exploring his spirituality and began to study about different religions in the library. Collis read books about Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Taoism, Atheism, Agnosticism, among others. Eventually he was introduced and joined the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he wrote in an article for LDSLiving.com.

Looking back, Collis appreciated his freedom to learn about the different faiths as well as his friends' liberty in sharing their beliefs. Everyone benefitted, he said.

"What I'm grateful for is that I was in a place where I was able to explore a number of religions without government interfering, and where people of many faiths were able to proselytize to me without government interfering," Collis said. "Without any of us even realizing it, religious freedom is what was allowing that to happen."

The second experience came when Collis was a student at the University of Michigan Law School. One of the world's leading scholars on religious freedom law, Douglas Laycock, happened to be there at the time and Collis took his class.

"It (religious freedom law) just resonated with me in a way that no other class had. Before I didn't really know anything about it. It's not something I was looking to get into," Collis said. "But when I took the course it was something that really hit me. I was fascinated by it and I've continued to stay involved."

As he continued his legal education and career over the years, Collis has stayed in touch with Laycock, now a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia. Writing and publishing articles together helped Collis to realize he loved academia more than the pure practice of law, and Laycock has served as an adviser along the way, Collis said.

Laycock endorsed his protégé's new book. He wrote that "Deep Conviction" will give readers a "deeper understanding of the relationship between church and state" and "illuminate how religious liberty law ended up where it is today."

"Collis takes complex legal theories and disputes and brings them to life in a way that will make them engaging for readers with no legal background," Laycock wrote. "The stories in this book illustrate the significant human toll that state regulation of religious exercise can exact, but they also show the interests of government and the legitimate concerns some may have with allowing conscientious objectors an exception to laws that apply to most others."

Collis hopes the stories shared in "Deep Conviction" will both educate and spark more conversations about religious freedom.

"I hope the book can make a difference for people," Collis said. "I hope that it would be something they enjoy reading, but also that it will add to the dialogue we're having in our country right now, and hopefully in a much more positive way than what I generally see being done by traditional media."