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Civil Rights

by Robert E. Riggs

Civil rights are legal guarantees designed to protect persons from arbitrary or discriminatory treatment. Common examples are those protecting freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, the right to due process of law, the right to vote, the right to equal protection of the law, and safeguards for persons accused of crime, such as the right against self-incrimination, the right to confront one's accuser, the right to a jury trial, the right to counsel, and the right to a speedy trial. These and other rights are declared in the Constitution of the United States of America and in the constitutions of many other countries (see Constitutional Law). Civil rights are found in statutes as well as in constitutions and may provide, for example, detailed guarantees against public and private discrimination on the basis of such characteristics as race, gender, age, and religion. Civil rights issues arise when people disagree about the rights that are, or ought to be, guaranteed by law.

THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints and its members have an obvious interest in securing their own rights. Beyond this, several strands of doctrine and belief—sometimes competing—shape the views of members and leaders regarding civil rights in general. The principle of free agency seems most compatible with a legal system guaranteeing wide latitude for individual choice and decision. With respect to religious liberties, agency is reinforced by individual and institutional interests in freedom from governmental restraint. In the United States of America, commitment to individual rights is further reinforced by allegiance to the personal liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which Latter-day Saints regard as an inspired document. On the other hand, the Church teaches its members to obey properly constituted governmental authority (D&C 134:5; 98:6; A of F 12), which may lead to accommodation and submission when core religious interests are not threatened. In addition, Church teachings on moral questions sometimes predispose members, as well as the institutional Church, to take positions on political issues (abortion, for example) that run counter to the rights claimed by others. As a result, the position of the Church and its members toward current civil rights issues is complex.

A Church statement of belief regarding government, adopted in 1835, singled out "free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life" as rights essential to the peace of society (D&C 134:2; see Politics: Political Teachings). This 1835 statement repeatedly stressed the importance of religious freedom, and the Church and its members have sometimes found it necessary to take legal action to vindicate free exercise rights. In Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints et al. v. Amos et al. (483 U.S. 327 [1987]), for example, the Church successfully defended its right to impose a religious test for employment in certain Church-owned establishments. The Church as an institution has avoided legal action where possible, but has been willing to defend its rights in court when necessary.

Apart from its special legal interests, the Church is publicly committed to a broad range of civil rights for all. An oft-cited 1963 statement by a member of the Church First Presidency, Hugh B. Brown, called for "full civil equality for all of God's children," saying "it is a moral evil…to deny any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship" (p. 1058).

In the political arena, where competing claims to civil rights are frequently debated, the Church participates indirectly by encouraging members to vote and to foster a society congenial to Christian teaching and righteous living. Occasionally, when public issues implicate important matters of doctrine and morals, the Church publishes recommended positions on disputed issues and encourages members and others to follow their counsel. Thus, the Church has urged restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages, opposed the legalization of gambling and lotteries, favored right-to-work legislation (no closed or union shop), advocated the defeat of the equal rights amendment (ERA), and spoken out against pornography, abortion, and child abuse.

Within the Church, individual rights play a muted role as compared with secular society. Love and duty are stressed far more than individual claims of right. Moreover, the Church is a voluntary organization whose sanctions extend only to rights of membership and participation within the group, so fewer safeguards are necessary. Thus, Church disciplinary proceedings do not provide the full set of procedural protections the accused would receive in secular courts. Although due process notices and appeal rights are given, service of process is not strictly enforced and there is no right to confront one's accuser, no jury trial, and no right to counsel. Indeed, confession of sin by the repentant sinner may be at odds with the right against self-incrimination (see Disciplinary Procedures). Free speech is another illustration of the contrast with secular society. Members are free to say or publish what they wish. Yet, Church etiquette and policies, obligations of confidentiality, respect for divine and holy things, and the need to avoid offending others impose restraints upon freedom of expression. Likewise, voting within the Church involves the concept of common consent, but has none of the trappings of democratic elections and in most instances amounts to ratification of leadership callings and decisions. As for gender equality and children's rights, the relationships of men, women, and children are governed by religious principles, freely adopted by members, which teach equality but emphasize differences in roles. These principles are taught as eternal patterns, not derived from prevailing attitudes toward civil rights in any secular society, past or present.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Doctrines of the Gospel home page; Teachings About Law home page)


Allen, James B., and Glen M. Leonard. The Story of the Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1976.

Brown, Hugh B. IE 66 (Dec. 1963):1058.

Cowan, Richard O. The Church in the Twentieth Century. Salt Lake City, 1985.

Firmage, Edwin Brown, and Richard Collin Mangrum. Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Urbana, Ill., 1988.

Mangrum, R. Collin. "Mormonism, Philosophical Liberalism, and the Constitution." BYU Studies 27 (Summer 1987):119-37.

McAffee, Thomas B. "Constitutional Interpretation and the American Tradition of Individual Rights." BYU Studies 27 (Summer 1987):139-69.

Melville, J. Keith. "Joseph Smith, the Constitution, and Individual Liberties." BYU Studies 28 (Spring 1988):65-74.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Civil Rights

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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