Speaking Wednesday, June 17, on the opening day of Brigham Young University’s online Religious Freedom Annual Review, Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said the ongoing pandemic has presented essential opportunities to “reaffirm” and “shore up” religious freedom.
Elder Bednar began his keynote message by recounting the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, who “wasted his substance with riotous living,” became lost and subsequently found his way home to his loving father. (Luke 15:11-32). There were two key aspects of this young man’s experience which Elder Bednar highlighted — the son “began to be in want” when a famine arose in the land, and the young man’s wake-up call led him to “come to himself.”
“Our world has seemingly been filled recently with strong ‘wake-up calls,’ ” he said. “From natural disasters to a deadly pandemic sweeping the globe to a most pernicious social plague of racism, we are daily reminded that we need to awaken to the perilous times that surround us, come to ourselves, and arise and turn to our Divine Father, who desires to instruct and edify us through our trials.”
Entitled “Religion and Religious Freedom in the COVID-19 Era: Finding Community and Hope,” the annual BYU gathering is, no surprise, a virtual affair in 2020. This year’s three-day event brings nationally recognized policy makers, scholars and religious leaders to discuss the role of religion and religious freedom in the United States.
The conference is sponsored by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark School of Law. Other keynote speakers participating in the 2020 BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review include former Utah governor and former Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, United Nations High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth Alaa Murabit, and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
COVID-19 constraints can be blessings
Just as a crisis offered a pivotal point for the prodigal son, the pandemic can help one realize things not fully realized before.
Elder Bednar spoke of a home visit several years ago with one of his senior apostolic associates, Elder Robert D. Hales, who was recovering from a serious illness. The younger Apostle asked his friend what lessons he had learned with the encroachment of age and diminished physical capacity.
Elder Hales responded: “When you cannot do what you have always done, then you only do what matters most.”
The limitations of Elder Hales’ advancing age had become sources of spiritual learning and insight, observed Elder Bednar. Physical restrictions expanded his vision. Limited stamina clarified his priorities. Inability to do many things directed his focus to a few things of greatest importance.
“Constraints and limitations can be remarkable blessings, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear,” said Elder Bednar. “And this same truth applies to all of us today as we wrestle with the effects of a pandemic.”
COVID-19 and religious freedom
The ongoing pandemic also sharpens focus on religious freedom and its precious and fragile place in the law, the nation and in one’s personal life, Elder Bednar said. “This present crisis may well be a moment when we ‘come to ourselves’ and realize…just how precious and fragile religious freedom is.”
One key realization is that for most faith communities, gathering for worship is not merely an enjoyable social activity — it is an essential part of living.
Elder Bednar emphasized that gathering is a powerful element in the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A central mission of the Church is to gather the family of Abraham to the ordinances and covenants of the gospel, he added. This vision of gathering motivates us to seek to establish a people “who are of one heart and one mind,” he said, and has even inspired the building of holy temples where through sacred ordinances and covenants, families are gathered eternally.
Gathering, declared Elder Bednar, is at the core of faith and religion. Other religious communities gather together for mass, baptisms, confirmations, sermons and other religious purposes. “And because gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom,” he said.
“It is vital for us to recognize that the sweeping governmental restrictions that were placed on religious gatherings at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis truly were extraordinary. In what seemed like an instant, most Western governments and many others simply banned communal worship. These restrictions eliminated public celebrations of Easter, Passover, Ramadan and other holy days around the world.
“No other event in our lifetime — and perhaps no other event since the founding of this nation — has caused quite this kind of widespread disruption of religious gatherings and worship.”
Governments have a duty to protect public health and safety, stated Elder Bednar — adding his belief that public officials have most often sought to do the right things to protect the public from the virus.
“But we cannot deny and we should not forget the speed and intensity with which government power was used to shut down fundamental aspects of religious exercise. These decisions and regulations were unprecedented. For nearly two months, Americans and many others throughout the free world learned firsthand what it means for government to directly prohibit the free exercise of religion.”
Elder Bednar then shared a few personal reflections on religious freedom prompted by the ongoing crisis:
First reflection: Government power can never be unlimited.
The “just powers” of government have a role in fostering a moral environment in which people can live good and honorable lives. “We the people,” he said, “must never allow [civic leaders] to forget that their offices and powers exist to secure our fundamental freedoms and the conditions for exercising those freedoms.”
Thus, despite the need for a proper response to COVID-19, “we must not become accustomed to sweeping assertions of governmental power. An emergency such as COVID-19 justifies strong measure to protect the public, Elder Bednar taught, but measures of extraordinary assertions of governmental power can dramatically constrain our basic freedoms. The power of government must have limits.
Second reflection: Religious freedom is paramount among a nation’s fundamental rights.
“The freedom of religion properly has been called our first freedom,” he said. “It is first not only because of its placement as the first right in the First Amendment, but also because of the paramount importance of respecting the moral agency of each person.
“Living even for a brief few weeks under the restrictions imposed on religious activity by COVID-19 is a stark reminder that nothing is more precious to people of faith than the freedom to ‘worship Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience’ and to openly and freely live according to our convictions.”
Religious liberty, he added, underlies the Constitution of the United States — both drawing from and reinforcing other rights protected by the First Amendment such as free speech, a free press, freedom to assemble and the right to petition the government to redress grievances.
It also safeguards the right to think for oneself, nurtures strong families and secures the space “necessary to live with faith, integrity and devotion.”
Nothing government does, noted Elder Bednar, “is more important than fostering the conditions wherein religion can flourish.”
Third reflection: Religious freedom is fragile.
As recent shutdowns have demonstrated, religious freedom “can quickly be swept aside” in the name of protecting other societal interests, said Elder Bednar.
“Despite COVID-19 risks, North American jurisdictions declared as ‘essential’ numerous services related to alcohol, animals, marijuana and other concerns. But often religious organizations and their services were simply deemed ‘nonessential,’ even when their activities could be conducted safely.
“In the name of protecting physical health and security or advancing other social values, government often acted without regard to the importance of protecting spiritual health and security. It often seemed to forget that securing religious freedom is as vital as physical health.”
Fourth reflection: In a time of crisis, sensitive tools are necessary to balance the demands of religious liberty with the just interests of society.
“We can no more disregard the valid claims of religious freedom in a time of crisis than we can disregard the valid claims of freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures,” Elder Bednar emphasized.
“Nor should we prioritize secular interests above religious ones. A health crisis should not become an excuse for a religious freedom crisis.”
Religion, he added, should not be treated less favorably than analogous secular activities. “Protecting a person’s physical health from the coronavirus is, of course, important, but so is a person’s spiritual health.”
Policy makers should limit the exercise of religion only when it truly is necessary to preserve public health and safety. “With good will and a little creativity, ways can almost always be found to fulfill both society’s needs and the imperative to protect religious freedom.”
During crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, believers and their religious organizations must be good citizens — but we cannot “allow government officials” to treat the exercise of religion as simply “nonessential,” declared the Latter-day Saint Apostle. Never again, he added, “must the fundamental right to worship God be trivialized below the ability to buy gasoline.”
Elder Bednar concluded by noting that in “our understandable desire to combat COVID-19,” society “may have forgotten something” about what is most precious.
“Perhaps we have not fully remembered that faith and the right to exercise it are central to our identity as believers and to all that we deem good and right and worthy of protection,” he said. “Now is the time for us to heed the wake-up call, to remember and to act.”