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Religious liberty is at the heart of Pioneer Day

July is the month in which we in Utah celebrate both the birth of the United States of America and the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. I love celebrating both of these important anniversaries so close together. Our forebears who arrived in Salt Lake on July 24, 1847, like the pilgrims centuries before, were fleeing religious persecution and seeking a place where they could freely follow the dictates of their conscience and the practices of their religion.

This year, remembering the reasons behind these important events seems particularly important.

As a student of the American Revolution, I do not think it’s by coincidence that the first line of the Bill of Rights reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As part of the First Amendment, the guarantee of religious liberty is the foundational amendment, the single most important freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.

Considering the role of religion in daily life at the time, it is clear that in expressing this concept, the founders were talking about more than the freedom to exercise religion itself but were speaking more broadly about freedom of thought and personal expression. Our ability for free thought and complex expression is the single most important element of what makes us all human. Therefore, when freedom of thought is restricted, our humanity itself is stripped away — for religious and nonreligious individuals alike. This is one of the many reasons why freedom of religion is so important. It is a sacred and fundamental expression of our being, and America’s commitment to these principles is what makes our country unique and great.

Given this, it has been unnerving to see how quickly and easily the government has been able to put limits on religious freedoms during the current pandemic. We have had a small taste of what it’s like to have many personal liberties taken from us. My religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, voluntarily suspended most religious gatherings, which I think was appropriate. However, I do not think it is appropriate for governments to tell religions or religious people that they cannot gather to worship in any format or number.

In some areas of the country, healthy priests with protective equipment weren’t even allowed to administer last rites to dying patients. This seems even more egregious when activities not guaranteed in the Constitution were given broad protections. When political leaders try to restrict freedom of religion — and freedom of thought by extension — it is the very definition of tyranny and will always lead to suffering.

Let us never repeat the mistake of elected 19th century leaders in this country who failed to protect the religious freedom of early adherents of my religion. Never again should Americans be forced to leave their homes in search of a place where they can worship freely. When we allow the government to dictate the terms under which we worship, to choose the circumstances under which they will honor our rights, we have lost something precious as Americans and as human beings. It seems obvious, then, that when these freedoms are threatened, the very fabric that holds our nation together is threatened.

This is why I have made the protection of religious liberty a key legislative priority. Right now, I have the only active piece of religious freedom legislation in Congress. Fairness for All is an effort to balance religious liberty and the desire for nondiscrimination protections for every American. We must use all the tools available to us — through our judicial, legislative and executive branches, to ensure that freedom of conscience cannot be abridged.

Independence Day and Pioneer Day mark moments when our ancestors stood in defense of the individual right to gather together in worship and gratitude. This Pioneer Day, join me in honoring their legacies by taking a moment to resolve again to defend the right to worship, believe and think in the way we choose.

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