Governed by the Law

“Let no man break the laws of the land,” said the Lord in an 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith, “for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:21).

Jesus taught the same principle during His earthly ministry, “Render…unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

As these scriptures imply, there is usually no conflict between secular and religious laws. But there have been times when people have been subject to immoral laws. What should be done in those circumstances? When is civil disobedience acceptable or even required?

Here are a few questions to ask when you are confronted with a law which seems wrong:

  1. Is the law immoral or just inconvenient? Mormon described the Nephites in about 30 BCE as “a stiffnecked people” who “could not be governed by the law” (Helaman 5:30). Are we governable—willing to comply with laws which we may not love but which are not harmful?
  2. How important is it? Even if we think the law is harmful, it may not be worth the battle. As President Dallin H. Oaks recently counseled, “People of faith should not contest every nondiscrimination law or policy that could possibly impinge, however insignificantly, on institutional or individual religious freedom” (“Going Forward with Religious Freedom and Nondiscrimination,” 2021 Joseph Smith Lecture, University of Virginia, 12 November 2021).
  3. Have you exhausted every lawful means to challenge it? Have you tried to persuade elected officials to change the law? Have you challenged it in court? Have you communicated your concerns, as Joseph Smith urged members of the church to do following their expulsion from Missouri. (See Doctrine and Covenants 123.)
  4. Finally, what does God want you to do? In a sermon explaining the revelation which ended the practice of plural marriage, Wilford Woodruff declared that he would have continued to defy the law, even after it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, if God had required it: “I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do” (Official Declaration 1, Doctrine and Covenants).

“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Articles of Faith 1:12). We believe this not because we are afraid of conflict nor because we lack conviction, but because we want to contribute to a peaceful society where people respect one another and comply with shared norms of behavior.

Today, I will resist the temptation to ignore or defy laws and policies with which I disagree. On important issues, I will make my voice heard, but I will also make clear that I respect the legislative process and that I can be governed by the law.

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