BYU conference touts religious freedom as soothing balm during COVID-19

Religious freedom is a “public good” belonging to believers and unbelievers — the faithful and the undecided.

That was the message delivered Friday by a Brigham Young University law professor during a historic global moment defined by pandemics, disruptions and division.

“Not only does [religious freedom] give us all space to make decisions freely about the things that matter most in life and then live out those beliefs, but it also allows for the preservation of institutions and traditions that bless people of all faiths and no faith,” said Professor Elizabeth Clark, associate director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

Friday marked the final day of the Church-owned school’s Religious Freedom Annual Review. The three-day conference, held virtually this year, gathers a worldwide audience to hear lawmakers, scholars and religious leaders discuss religious freedom in the United States.

On Wednesday, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles offered his keynote address on the importance of protecting religious freedom during the COVID-19 crisis.

Speaking Friday on religion’s unifying potential during the pandemic, Clark observed that “community” and “hope” have been in short supply in recent weeks. The virus is claiming lives while exacting a sobering economic and psychological toll.

“We’ve all faced loss in recent months  — loss of loved ones, loss of employment, loss of dreams, loss of hope and community,” she said. “Can something come from this beyond the very real pain and grief we all have been experiencing? Can the loss somehow be transformative?”

In response, many international religious leaders, including President Russell M. Nelson, have called for worldwide fasting and prayer. Such practices are transformative and promote selflessness, said Clark.

“Fasting, for the religious, is not merely celebrating hunger or some twisted love of misery. It is profoundly counterintuitive in the way that religious logic often is: we forgo necessities to gain something better, we abase ourselves in order to become holier, we lose our lives in order to save them. 

“The loss that is fasting becomes holy as those fasting seek revelation and transformation during the fast and then go forward with confidence and inspiration to bless others throughout the world.”

The nation’s shared experience with the pandemic can “turn us upwards” and prompt people to reach outward.

“We can become people who care more deeply about things that are most important, valuing loving family relationships, time in nature, and opportunities to learn and grow,” she said. “As a society, we can value civility, kindness, and decency, and we can choose to prioritize working together to solve difficult problems.”

Passing the pandemic stress test

In his conference-concluding remarks Friday, Brett G. Scharffs, director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies, said the ongoing pandemic presents a “stress test” for individuals and institutions.

“As we strive to practice responsible physical distancing, this is surely a time that is testing the strength and resilience of the bridges that connect us one with another, a time that is trying our hearts,” he said.

BYU Professor Brett G. Scharffs speaks during the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School on Friday, June 19, 2020.
BYU Professor Brett G. Scharffs speaks during the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School on Friday, June 19, 2020. Credit: Screenshot, religiousfreedom.byu.edu

Scharffs offered several strategies — some legal, some non-legal — to help withstand the stresses of the day. In matters of religious freedom, begin by recognizing baseline principles such as rule of law and non-discrimination.

“Religious activity cannot simply be completely banned,” said Scharffs. “Governors who have taken the view that religious activity is not ‘essential,’ and can simply be prohibited, are mistaken, and courts will strike down comprehensive measures that prohibit all religious activity. Religious freedom, including religious worship and the right to gather, are among our most precious, and protected, constitutional rights.”

Even during crises, governments must use the least restrictive measures when limiting religious freedoms, he said. “The basic idea is that restrictions or limitations on religious activities or manifestations should be no greater than what is really necessary. This will require careful balancing that takes account of actual circumstances, which may change quickly.”

Non-legal strategies, added Scharffs, include exercising patience, forbearance and restraint with others — and with one’s self. Always strive to be a light at times of darkness.

“I’ve been impressed with how often in scripture we are admonished to be a light,” he said. “For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, ‘Ye are the light of the world.’ He urges us to not hide our light under a bushel, and to let our light shine.”

And finally, promote human dignity for all. 

“Human dignity is an important legal principle, and it is the foundational idea upon which human rights are based,” said Scharff. “But recognizing, regarding and respecting the dignity of all people in all places is also an important strategy for responding, collectively and individually, to the COVID crisis.”

He concluded with an invitation to reflect and follow the Savior’s light. “May we remember that we are each children of God, created in His image, with all the dignity, value and status that implies.”

Economy of goodness

Michael O. Leavitt, the former governor of Utah and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, also participated in Friday’s virtual session.

He championed the “economy of goodness” — the power to simply do the right thing, voluntarily — during the ongoing pandemic.

Leavitt’s Cabinet service taught him the dangers that pandemics pose to public health and global economies. Now countries around the world are struggling to prevail over COVID-19. Today’s communication technology offers tools not available during past pandemics such as the 1918 influenza outbreak.

Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks via videoconference during the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School on Friday, June 19, 2020.
Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks via videoconference during the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School on Friday, June 19, 2020. Credit: Screenshot, religiousfreedom.byu.edu

“There has never been a civilization as capable of taking action during a pandemic as the one we live in,” he said. 

Well-established practices such as social distancing can help prevent the spread of disease. But as with many medical interventions, social distancing presents potential side effects. Schools have been closed. Businesses and churches have been shut down. Traditions have been set aside. Mental health, for many, is jeopardized.

Finding balance is the challenge, said Leavitt. As communities open, individual behaviors such as hand washing will determine positive outcomes. When individual hearts change, nations can change.

The free practice of religion will be essential in overcoming the daunting challenges of the day, he concluded. “Those who attend this meeting are guardians of religious freedom around the world… Let us all keep that stewardship. Our aspiration for a healthy and prosperous society depends on it.”