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Best of 2013: Faith in the community

Reporting on faith in our communities has made me more aware than ever of religion's role and influence at all levels of society.

Religious freedom — what it means, who it's for, how it's protected — has been a source of debate and news for centuries. And 2013 was no exception.

What sets apart today's debate from the past? As I interviewed scholars, lawyers and those with a personal stake in a religious freedom claim, it became clear to me that as America becomes more diverse, recognizing and protecting individual conscience rights takes on added importance.

As one scholar put it: "We are all a (religious) minority somewhere." And the rights of that minority deserve protection just as those of the majority.

Another distinction between past and present is that the most contentious religious freedom debates today don't center on the right to wear a hijab to work or display a Nativity scene on public property — although those cases will continue and remain important.

Instead, the most divisive cases revolve around sexuality — for instance, the government mandating an employer whose religious beliefs prohibit artificial contraception to provide birth control under a health care plan or, in another case, antidiscrimination laws forcing a bakery or a photographer, who considers same-sex marriage a sin, to accommodate a gay couple's ceremony.

But beyond the extreme and sincere differences of opinion, I found a vast middle ground of stakeholders who are working behind the scenes to find ways to protect conscience rights and those of other interests through legislated exemptions. It's a method of compromise that has worked to protect religious freedom for centuries, and there is hope it can still work today.

Religion can be a powerful force that explains how and why people do what they do. The Deseret News' approach to covering faith in the community is to explore and explain how people live their faith and the impact that has on the community at large.

Among my most rewarding assignments of covering faith in the community this past year was writing about the 50th anniversary of several seminal events in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. My past knowledge of the push by black Americans for civil rights was largely from a political perspective. But in writing stories about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the famous March on Washington, I learned the movement was largely rooted in religion.

King and other leaders used the nation's network of churches and synagogues to tap into believers' sense of justice and compassion to organize and carry out events that eventually led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

While religious institutions have always played a vital role in American society, sociologists and clergy also make a convincing and profound case that family solidarity is key to keeping faith vibrant in the community at large. Throughout the year I found a large body of sociological work that confirmed the greatest predictor of the religious lives of children is the religiosity of their parents.

Interviewing the experts about their research was always enlightening, but it was listening to the personal stories of clergy, parents, young adults and seniors about how they found faith and strive to live it that was most profound and moving — underscoring once again the extent to which religion is deeply embedded at all levels of our society.

In no particular order, here is a list of 2013's most impactful national faith in the Community stories from the Deseret News:

1. Why America's long history of protecting religion is at the center of gay marriage debate by Matthew Brown

2. Religion may play more prominent role in America as baby boomers age by Matthew Brown

3. How divorce affects young adults' religiosity by Matthew Brown

4. 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' still resonates by Matthew Brown

5. Leaving it at the altar: Navigating interfaith marriage by David Ward

6. Religious vs. spiritual: Study says the truly 'spiritual but not religious' are hard to find by Matthew Brown

7. Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago set modern course for religion in public schools by Matthew Brown

8. Lesson from Waco: Religion matters when dealing with the nonconventional by Matthew Brown

9. Faith and work: Accommodating religion boosts morale and bottom line by Matthew Brown

10. March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement by Matthew Brown

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com Twitter: @deseretbrown