Winds of Change at JRCLS?

Is the JRCLS mobilizing to become a more political force?

For the uninitiated reader, the J. Reuben Clark Law Society (“JRCLS”) is a voluntary, unincorporated association of legal professionals, academics and students affiliated with the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU. Through regular meetings with speakers and other activities on a local, national and international level, the JRCLS seeks to “affirm the strength brought to the law by a lawyer’s personal religious conviction” and “strive[s] through public service and professional excellence to promote fairness and virtue founded upon the rule of law.”

One of the central tenets of JRCLS events is supposed to be political neutrality. The JRCLS bylaws emphasize the need for JRCLS “and its chapters . . . to comply with BYU’s Political Neutrality Policy [and other policies relating to BYU’s non-profit, tax-exempt status], . . . which require strict neutrality regarding partisan political activities and which also place certain restrictions on lobbying and other political activities.”

When I served on the Executive Committee for the Dallas-Ft. Worth Chapter of the JRCLS, for example, we absolutely refused (to the chagrin of several) an opportunity to have Mitt Romney (who actually has a law degree) come and address the Chapter in Dallas during his 2008 presidential campaign. We thought it would be too partisan in nature, so we did not allow it.

For that reason, I was somewhat surprised by the general gist of, and several specific speeches and “calls to action” emanating from, the 2010 JRCLS National Conference held at the University of Utah in SLC, Utah during February 2010.

Although the theme of the conference was “Service for Good through the Law,” the emphasis seemed to be on the “challenge to religious liberty that is growing worldwide” (quote from Elder Wickman’s introductory speech on Thursday night). The gist of Elder Wickman’s speech, which seemed to set the tone for the rest of the conference, was that there is a growing threat to religious liberty in the United States, posed by people who are seeking to expand “civil social rights at the expense of civil religious rights.” Along those lines, the main “service for good” discussed at the conference that we as JRCLSers could render is to work to protect religious liberty around the world.

Bill Atkin, Associate General Counsel for the LDS Church, announced during the final event of the conference his vision for JRCLSers to rise up and preach religious freedom: “I have a vision of ten thousand lawyers around the United States and Canada who volunteer and use their talents, skills, and knowledge to educate others on the principles of religious liberty,” Atkin said.

Although these are not calls, per se, for the kind of partisan political action that might run contrary to 501(c)(3) status, they do seem to be approaching a border with it. Will the local chapters of the JRCLS now be mobilized to aide in the fight against gay marriage in other states where it becomes an issue? Does anyone know if they were mobilized in the push to get out the vote for Proposition 8 in California?

Perhaps the many calls at the 2010 JRCLS National Conference for JRCLSers to stand and educate their communities about the importance and role of robust religious freedom in our society was not a mobilization for a political action force. But does it indicate that the JRCLS might be slowly headed that way, and is that good or bad? Personally, I kind of like it on politically neutral ground, and I see this as a slight move away from that neutrality, but wonder what others think.

Note, by the way, that I am a full supporter of and active participant in JRCLS activities, and I am helping plan and organize the 2011 conference which will be held at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I hope to see some of ya’ll out in Texas next year!

28 Responses to Winds of Change at JRCLS?

  1. DCL says:

    Your former home teachee here, Jordan, and a JRCLS member myself.

    I agree with your point that none of the proposed political activities really threaten the 501(c)(3) status of JRCLS, but think that sometimes members retreat to that idea if they perceive the church isn’t doing enough on their pet issue.

    The idea of JRCLS turning into a sort of conservative ACLU is intriguing, although I admit that the rhetoric of our values being under attack doesn’t resonate with me.

  2. Jordan F. says:

    DCL – which former “hometeachee” of mine might you be? I THINK I know – Northwood IV, upstairs, but my brain is not working well enough right now to figure it out conclusively…

    Your mention of potentially turning the JRCLS into some sort of right-wing ACLU made me chuckle.

  3. DCL says:

    Daniel Lorenzen. You are still the best we ever had, Jordan…

  4. DCL says:

    Our local JRCLS has recently started an extensive pro bono program covering traditional topics like landlord-tenant, bankruptcy, immigration, criminal, etc. It would be interesting to see whether this pro bono infrastructure is ever called on to handle civil rights issues for church members. The closest I can think of as a recent example would be members who were targeted in the Prop 8 aftermath as a result of the (mostly legal) publication, blacklisting, and attempts to poke fun at their names.

    There is a school prayer case in the First Amendment casebooks where the LDS plaintiffs were represented by the ACLU because they felt the baptist-themed school prayers violated their religious freedoms. I wonder if the JRCLS could fit into this anti-school prayer sort of position.

    • Jordan F. says:

      Dan – I always use that very case as an example as to why the LDS Church needs to stay out of the school prayer issue- school and public prayer is unfortunately a tool that majority religions actually can and do use to oppress minority religions. It is better, in my opinion, to keep prayer in the private realm.

  5. Mark D. says:

    I don’t understand. If the JRCLS is independent, why does it need to adhere to BYU’s policies? Why can’t it adopt its own political neutrality policy, and presumably defend its own 501(c)(3) exemption?

    Is it a matter of BYU largely funding the society, in a manner that would make the societies’ claim to independence more illusory than real?

    Alternatively, if BYU supports just the chapter at BYU, wouldn’t BYU policies extend only to events held at that location? Why the reach to events in remote cities?

  6. john f. says:

    I really like the idea of keeping it politically neutral in every conceivable way. Also, I am a little nervous at all of this rhetoric about religious freedom coming under attack. This has not been adequately demonstrated, to my mind. The backlash against the Church’s involvement in Proposition 8 does not really fit the bill because that is the public relations reaction that should have been expected as a result of such intervention. Also, if it is a majoritarian groundswell against the Church because of what the Church did in California, then although that can indeed be dangerous for the Church, it is not the same as governmental restrictions on the Church’s freedoms.

    In the face of a majoritarian/populist campaign against the Church based on its use of its influence in the political process in California, the Church’s best friend will become the counter-majoritarian courts in the United States, which take up the role in our political system of defending a minority’s Constitutional and natural rights (such as the free exercise of religion) against any majoritarian abuses of such rights and their enjoyment.

    There are two inherent ironies in such a situation, of course. The first will be that a significant number of Latter-day Saints these days inveigh against our federal courts taking that role, at least to the extent that in doing so the courts extend to any extent penumbral rights to protect rights otherwise not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Such penumbral rights, however, might or might not include certain kinds of protections that Latter-day Saints would be very grateful to receive in such a situation. The second is, of course, that it was the actions of the counter-majoritian courts in declaring that same-sex couples have a right to marry that started us all down this path.

    If the speakers are correct that religious freedom is under attack either by the government or by a majority ill-disposed towards religious people or toward our religion, then the counter-majoritarian courts will yet come to our aide as a Church. Let’s recognize that fact as we consider the role of courts.

  7. It seems that the change (as described) is a move away from the BYU Management Society model to something like an LDS Federalist Society.

  8. We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

    Can also be read:

    We claim the privilege in marrying according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all the same privilege, let them marry how, where or what they may.

    That strikes me as religious freedom, the right to engage in a religious ordinance (marriage) according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.

    I need to get out to JRCLS stuff again.

  9. Randy B. says:

    Nice post Jordan.

    John, you’re spot on, though I hold little hope that that message gets through. We seem instead to be in siege mentality mode.

  10. john willis says:

    Amen to what John F. said. I have not have the chance to read the whole text of Elder Wickman’s talk to the JRCLC on so called threats to religous freedom. By I am rather puzzled by his talk and Elder Oaks talk at BYU-I.

    Not being reappointed to the board of directors of a restored movie theater in Oakland is hardly the Missouri persecutions of 1838.

  11. Peter says:

    I didn’t used to consider the topic of religious liberties a partisan issue, but I agree that it has become such. I definitely support the ability of a religious denomination to assert its First Amendment rights, but I share some of the uneasiness voiced in this post about the potential politicization of the JRCLS. I think that would hinder its pro bono goals.

    I have never been to a JRCLS Conference, but my understanding is that some of the speakers and sessions have a significant political bent. I think this is lamentable, and probably counter-productive to the goals of the JRCLS.

    On the positive side, I detect something of a sea change in the JRCLS as it evolves from an appendage to the BYU Law School to an actual professional organization for LDS attorneys. They just started developing practice groups, and the pro bono programs have become much better-organized. For someone like me, who attended a different law school, these changes are very welcome.

  12. Jordan F. says:

    Peter – I am in charge of planning the speakers for the next JRCLS annual conference to be held in Dallas, Texas. How can we avoid becoming too political?

  13. Patricia M says:

    It surprises me that legal experts such as yourself do not see a threat to religious freedoms. I am not an attorney, and I recognize that your knowledge of legal issues far surpasses mine, so I welcome corrections, explanations, etc.

    From where I sit, the threats to religious freedoms come from two directions. The first is the most widely discussed, that of the elevation of homosexuality to a protected minority group status. The most poignant example has come from Canada in the conviction of Pastor Stephen Boisson of hate speech in his teachings against homosexuality. In addition, I remember reading the words of a gay rights activist some time ago who said in essence: You violate my rights the moment you think homosexuality is immoral. This type of sentiment can lead to the limitation of the rights of religious Americans to freedom of religious expression. I will say that the recent Iowa Supreme Court decision to allow gay marriage was careful to clarify the rights of churches to choose who to marry according to their beliefs, a hopeful sign to be sure. Nevertheless, there is a challenge to our freedoms should the idea that homosexuality is out of the realm of acceptable discourse, especially for churches who preach against it, become a legal reality.

    The second is a less discussed issue, but just as important from my point of view. There is a growing sentiment that religion has no place in the public sphere. Neal A Maxwell discussed this in his 1978 speech “Meeting the Challenges of Today”. He said, prophetically: “Your discipleship may see the time come when religious convictions are heavily discounted. M. J. Sobran also observed, “A religious conviction is now a second-class conviction, expected to step deferentially to the back of the secular bus, and not to get uppity about it” (Human Life Review, Summer 1978, p. 58). This new irreligious imperialism seeks to disallow certain of people’s opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions. Resistance to abortion will soon be seen as primitive. Concern over the institution of the family will be viewed as untrendy and unenlightened.”

    Haven’t we seen this come to pass?

    It seems to me that we are just seeing the early stages of what could evolve into an ugly landscape for believing Americans. Perhaps it is this reality to which the speakers at the JRCLS conference were referring.

    • Sam B. says:

      I’m not an expert, by any means, on religious freedom, but I’d respond to your concerns in two ways. First, I wouldn’t get too worried about the Canadian precedent (with which I’m not particularly familiar, in any event). Canada’s guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion are more circumscribed than those of the U.S. Nonetheless, it appears that Stephen Boissoin’s conviction was recently overturned on appeal. So that horror story doesn’t apply.

      And religion’s not out of public discourse. Our president is an avowed Christian; I’ve seen some recent academic legal publications addressing religiously-motivated political participation. There are those who discount the religious, but there are also those who discount the irreligious. In the secular cities I’ve lived in, I’ve never noticed any significant bias against religion or religious thought.

  14. Patricia,

    In addition to what Sam said, it appears that anti-abortion sentiment has increased in recent years. Since that quote in 1978, religion in the public square has almost sky-rocketed.

    Either way, not sure how any of those things constitute an attack on the freedom of religion.

  15. Jordan F. says:


    Perhaps you are speaking to others, like my brother, John, but I don’t think I actually attacked the idea that religious liberties are “under attack,” just the wisdom of mobilizing the JRCLS to fight it politically.

  16. john f. says:

    I hate to say it but the arguments that we are hearing lately about religion being under attack or having no place in the public sphere seem to be aimed at people who objected to the Church’s involvement in the Prop 8 issue and who voiced their objection, as is their right as citizens.

    It is shameful if some people were pressured into quitting their jobs after Prop 8 because of their religion. But this type of a grassroots groundswell against the Church in reaction to its efforts in California relating to Prop 8 is not the same as a government restricting the Church’s free exercise rights.

    As to religion having a place in the public sphere, one advantage the United States has over a country with a very strict separation of Church and state like France is that the American polity can indeed accommodate religious expression and viewpoints better. However, no one benefits more from a strict separation of Church and state than Latter-day Saints, especially in countries that view the Church as basically a dangerous cult (like Belgium, for example). The separation of Church and state, even strictly enforced, actually also benefits the Church in the United States as well. Without it, there is nothing preventing Missouri circa 1838 from happening again, especially in situations where the Church injects itself so straightforwardly into the political process as has been the case in the Prop 8 situation. Grassroots reactions against the Church’s actions were foreseeable.

  17. Tim says:

    There are 8 LDS members at my small Midwestern law school, and a couple of us are discussing starting a branch of the JRCLS. I’m not really certain of the politics of everyone in the group, but at least a couple of us are Democrats. We already have a federalist society at the school (one of the LDS members is involved in that too). A move towards the political right is a turn-off to some of us, and is a definite factor when we consider whether or not to start up a branch.

    • Jordan F. says:

      Hence my concern at what might be the “winds of change” at JRCLS. At Michigan, where I attended law school, we had a “federalist society” and a JRCLS chapter. We were just having limited success near the end of my time at Michigan convincing our LDS classmates who leaned liberal (or, let’s face it, were total left wing radical flaming libs… ;)) that the JRCLS was not just a mormon version of the Federalist Society. Some of the discussion at this last conference may make that line less clear.

  18. gst says:

    I think Tim’s concern is valid. Do we no longer need to commune with our lefty Mormon lawyer friends?

  19. Steve EM says:

    A name change would help. JRC was an anachronistic mid twentieth century segregationist that IMHO is best forgotten. And I’m very conservative politically.

  20. Mark D. says:

    No doubt we would do better if we erased the names of everyone over fifty.

  21. Karen H. says:

    Jordan, good post, and John F., very thoughtful response. We do not do ourselves any favors by conflating the ideas of “social unpopularity” with “government repression.” Both are problems, but when correctly identified call for very different responses.

  22. Diane B. says:

    And JRCLS is also putting their scholarship money where their mouth is:

    • Peter says:

      Perhaps, although I notice that the writing competition was initiated and funded by the D.C. JRCLS chapter for the past few years, and probably represents the interests of that chapter or its members more accurately than the larger JRCLS. But they put it on the main JRCLS website, so there is at least some tacit approval.

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