Additional Resource

Conversation, Conviction, and Civility: Sharing Religious Values in Schools and the Public Square

By Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary General President

Sister Jones delivered this address September 22, 2019, in Holladay, Utah, at an event organized by Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law Society. Read a news summary of her talk.

I. How Will You React?

Do you think of yourself as standing outside the noise of society? As hovering above the confusion of the world? As immune to the messiness of democracy? Well, that noise is all around us. But I believe that we are better off when we don’t think of it as noise; it’s real life. We are inescapably part of society. We benefit from its goodness at the same time as we work to improve its flaws.

Even as we don’t think of circumstances as noise, we will find that there will always be challenges to face. Consider the following scenarios and even think of your own:

A teacher tells her students they cannot talk about God in class.

A high school coach suspends a Jewish student from the basketball team for refusing to play the few Friday night games on the schedule due to his Sabbath observance.

Your sophomore brings you a notice to attend a required health class that includes issues of sexual behavior that go against your beliefs.

A Muslim student prays in a corner of the playground during recess, and your child sees a teacher order him to stop. The teacher then tells your child’s class that absolutely no prayers are allowed in school.

A rally on your college campus condemns the lobbying efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the passage of a legislative bill that promotes the rights of religious institutions. Signs with the phrase “We demand the separation of church and state” rise with the shouts.

Colleagues at work take down from your cubicle wall your framed copy of the family proclamation. Your boss says she’ll reprimand the culprits but then warns you that anti-LGBT bigotry is not allowed in the workplace.

A young woman speaks out in class about why she doesn’t believe in God or organized religion and gets booed by the rest of the students.

These examples represent situations that actually have happened or could happen. The list goes on and on. The questions I want to pose include these: How do we, as parents, students, citizens, neighbors, and human beings react to such conflicts? What is our first impulse? Evade or engage? The answer determines what kind of a society we will live in—whether we splinter apart into our own warring groups or flourish together as citizens seeking the common good. It is sometimes necessary to turn to the administration or the law for recourse, but often situations can end up being handled by the parties involved—regular people who have a stake in the outcome.

However, if you think nice words or kind gestures alone will solve these conflicts, then you may be in for an education. While niceness and kindness are important, engaging in open and honest dialogue in the public square is hard work. The short-term outcome is always in question. Good will is a work in progress. We ultimately find that societal harmony is more of a negotiation than it is a total victory for any one side or any other.

As we are figuring out that truth, we don’t have the luxury of cloistering ourselves in a safe, hermetically sealed environment, closed off from any and all disagreement. In the beautiful rough-and-tumble of a republic, there is no option for religious people to retreat, only a call to engage.

When we engage, we often feel threatened by differences. And we don’t have to go far to find them. The peculiarities of our lives can estrange us from each other. We often see things from different perspectives, and sometimes the fear of differences threatens us more than the actual differences.

Our differences, therefore, have more meaning when they enter into conversation with other differences. Otherwise, we get stuck in our own social echo chambers.

II. Connection vs. Protection

When we live among people who have immeasurably different opinions, experiences, upbringings, beliefs, personalities, and politics (and we all do), we can approach our interactions in two ways. We either connect ourselves with people or protect ourselves from people. Someone who makes connection through their creed will make people their focus, listen more than talk, shake hands with someone even if they are shy or don’t know what to say, become vulnerable to ridicule, and so on. Someone who sinks into a protective mode worries how they are perceived, frets about pleasing their tribe, competes instead of cooperates, and wins points instead of hearts. Protection is so much easier. In fact, it’s human nature. We all do it. But a connective mind-set is what keeps civilization going.

Connection comes with risk, but it also comes with greater rewards. Protection from the messiness of other people has a veneer of safety but ends up shrinking our ability to influence society.

This paradigm applies to almost every area of life, especially how we share our faith in public life. Connecting always creates more space for growth and creativity, while protection and guarding oneself from others always contracts and reduces and limits the space of possibilities for human understanding and social progress.

What are the stakes here in connecting or protecting? A few are that it can prove the difference between making friends or enemies. Between resolving an issue and allowing it to harden. Between trust and suspicion. Between progress and stalemate. Between open arms and clenched teeth.

Think of this contrast, these two ways to approach life, as we return to our examples.

Speaking about religion in public schools, for both teachers and students, is constitutional and legal. But, as in all things, it should be done in a reasonable, sincere, thoughtful way. Just because something is legal does not mean that we don’t have to be considerate. Remember, we are working with both hearts and minds here.

According to this wonderful resource titled A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools: “Generally, individual students are free to pray, read their scriptures, discuss their faith, and invite others to join their particular religious group. Only if a student’s behavior is disruptive or coercive should it be prohibited. No student should be allowed to harass or pressure others in a public-school setting. If doing so is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment, students also have the right to express their religious views during a class discussion or as part of a written assignment or art activity.”

And regarding prayer, according to that same parent’s guide, “Students are free to pray alone or in groups, as long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe upon the rights of others. These activities must be truly voluntary and student-initiated.”

The classroom is a place of education, not of proselyting or religious competition, so differing perspectives about God and religion certainly have a place in public schools. The companion resource for teachers states: “As the Supreme Court has made clear, study about religion in public schools is constitutional. Inclusion of study about religion is important in order for students to be properly educated about history and cultures. Religion must be taught objectively and neutrally.”

Some circumstances don’t have a definitive answer or solution but must be worked out in the specific context of the situation. Instead we must consider the circumstances, personalities, policies, and environments involved; read the situation; and then engage in conversation.

III. What Can We Say?

Most of the examples I spoke of earlier can be resolved without resorting to legal action. What is usually needed is good old honest dialogue. This video shared by the Church exemplifies how this can be done.

If we look deeply and closely enough, all sides of a disagreement usually have a legitimate, defensible viewpoint and stake in a good outcome. It is often the case that the interests of the involved parties are not, objectively speaking, better or worse, but just different. And it takes time, care, and honesty to disentangle those interests and present them plainly to the other side.

Safety comes in engaging, not avoiding.

One other thing to remember is that not all school administrators, teachers, or staff have been trained on these matters. And, of course, many parents haven’t either. For that reason, we all need to be patient with each other and find civil solutions based on law.

Workplace politics can be even more challenging because of the diversity of the sector. But the same principles apply. The Church has a resource page that spells out the specifics. It says:

“You have a right to express your faith, as long as you don’t harass others or lead people to mistake your private expressions of faith for your employer’s views. You can talk to coworkers about your beliefs, hang a religious picture or keep personal items at your work station, wear religious clothing or jewelry, have personal devotionals (like reading your scriptures in the break room), or even start a voluntary prayer group, unless the company has job-related policies that apply the same to everyone (such as keeping desks clear of any personal items when customers can see them) and can’t give you an accommodation.”

Let’s watch a helpful video.

What kinds of situations have you faced? What will you do? Hunker down, or lend a voice of reason and shape society as much as we can, knowing that the final outcome is decided, but we have a way to go before we get there?

Whenever we express our values in the public square, we need to be mindful, prayerful, and sensitive to the Spirit in order to determine how we interact in each situation and to know what the particular moment calls for. Not all moments are the same, and some require different styles and tones.

Years ago, our oldest son was beginning junior high in California. My husband and I were invited to attend a health education class preview led by the teacher. During the presentation, we viewed videos that would be included in the course. As we watched, we both felt impressed that one of the videos was very inappropriate for that age group.

At the end of the class, the teacher asked if there were any questions. After a brief pause, my husband raised his hand and said, “With all due respect, we don’t feel that the last video is appropriate and would like our son excused from class the day it is shown.”

With some hesitancy, the teacher agreed and asked us to talk to her after the meeting. As she returned to the group, another parent made the same request. Then additional hands went up, each parent seeking the same exemption.

Finally, the teacher said, “I’m getting the feeling you don’t want this video shown. Is that correct?” The entire group agreed, and the teacher assured the group that it wouldn’t be used.

Here’s the point—it took only one voice speaking up to make a difference for the entire group. We can each provide that tactful, respectful voice that can make a difference.

In the public discourse of our day, we often see both sides of the extreme—either full-throttle condemnation and shaming of opponents on the one hand, or a passive agreeability without conviction on the other. Real life may take us across the range of this spectrum, but it takes faith to speak with both conviction and civility. The two are not mutually exclusive. Let’s find the right degree of firmness and cooperation to fit what the moment calls for.

IV. Our Current Social Environment

The law is obviously important and foundational, but the culture and values of a society are also crucial in maintaining freedom and justice. As Elder Patrick Kearon recently said: “Healthy societies run on trust, confidence, and a sense of safety. With freedom of religion and belief, people feel safe in their deepest convictions and can express and exercise them publicly. The great enemy of religious freedom is estrangement and alienation. When a society or government divides people based on what they believe, how they think, the words they say, whom they worship, or the manner in which they worship, common ground is lost, and life together becomes a battle. The test of a pluralistic society is to achieve unity without diminishing the diversity within it.”[1]

We live in a peculiar time. The public life of our country seems to be getting more and more secular. Mentions of religion and truth claims must be brief, almost veiled, for fear of offending others. And yet, we’ve never lived in a time when so many fascinating and unique religious practices live side by side with each other. This pluralism of religious experience is simply a fact of our changing society, and we have the pleasure of learning how to navigate it.

We can no longer assume that the Christian beliefs and values that were once so common will now be shared by everyone. But we can hope that everyone feels empowered to live out their religion. Elder Kearon also said, “In terms of numbers and inherited culture, the United States has a Christian majority, but unless it honors the lawful practices of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Native American religions, and everyone else, including individuals and groups who profess no faith at all, it will fail to live up to its own ideals.”[2]

Our modern world is teeming with choices and possibilities. Endless philosophies, ideologies, and truth claims clamor for attention, magnified by instantaneous media. Globalization pushes peoples and cultures together. Different religions and worldviews interact and collide. In many instances, personal preferences alone shape efforts to deal with moral dilemmas. In this state of flux, individuals can feel isolated and become disconnected from their communities, so let’s take up this challenge with confidence.

Let’s follow the counsel of revealed scripture, learn of “the perplexities of the nations,” and gain a knowledge of “countries and of kingdoms.”[3] A major part of any nation or country is its religious history, beliefs, and practices. To really understand a people, a nation or a neighbor, you have to understand their religion. We call this religious literacy. This greater understanding and appreciation will broaden our perspective and equip us to handle societal dialogue much more deeply. It will also inspire people to have more respect for us.

Be sensitive and cognizant of the shifting dynamics between religious majorities and minorities. This dynamic can change depending on location and social context. You may be in the religious majority in Utah, but you will find yourself to be a minority most anywhere else. Majorities have the moral responsibility to treat their outnumbered brothers and sisters with respect as well as kindness. We, as Latter-day Saints, often view ourselves as being on the receiving end of mistreatment, but we can be on the offending end, too. Don’t let the power of being in a majority make you complacent, and don’t let the imbalance of being in a minority make you resentful. In either situation, we can act as disciples of Jesus Christ. We can connect with those who disagree, be firm in our rights, empathize with those around us, and develop a broader perspective.

V. Conclusion

When you do venture out to connect and create goodwill, you will find kindred spirits—both those who disagree and those who agree with you. They may be hiding, but they will emerge. And those who don’t agree with you will find respect for you and perhaps soften their disagreement because of your civility. In this process, both sides gain faith in humanity and feel a greater sense of belonging to each other.

Follow your conscience and convictions. Ordinary people such as you and I can influence our communities in simple, yet profound ways. Let me suggest seven simple guidelines for speaking up and speaking out:

  • Be informed.
  • Be civil.
  • Be sincere.
  • Be clear.
  • Be natural.
  • Be meek.
  • Be patient.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.”[4] In the end, brothers and sisters, we are the guardians of our religious liberty. And as the Apostle Paul said, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”[5]


[1] Patrick Kearon, “Of Rights and Responsibilities: The Social Ecosystem of Religious Freedom” (address given at Brigham Young University’s Religious Freedom Annual Review, June 19, 2019).

[2] Patrick Kearon, “Of Rights and Responsibilities: The Social Ecosystem of Religious Freedom” (address given at Brigham Young University’s Religious Freedom Annual Review, June 19, 2019).

[3] Doctrine and Covenants 88:79.

[4] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 345.

[5] 2 Corinthians 3:17.

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