How COVID-19 pandemic restrictions reshaped a small-scale Layton temple groundbreaking

LAYTON, Utah — After the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony was announced in late January, organizers initially projected the May 30 event to draw hundreds of attendees to the temple site — perhaps more than a thousand or two — and started planning accordingly.

But consider how an unexpected global COVID-19 pandemic and resulting government restrictions and Church adjustments reshaped the actual groundbreaking experience, which was finalized Saturday, May 30, with an online sharing of the temple groundbreaking ceremony.

The actual groundbreaking occurred a week earlier than scheduled — a small-scale ceremony held Saturday, May 23, at the southeastern Layton site and involving the Utah Area presidency among the some 20 invited guests. Chairs were deliberately positioned to accommodate prescribed social distancing, attendees were equipped with protective face masks, and the pulpit, microphone and handles of the ceremonial shovels were all wiped down between uses.

The brief May 23 ceremony at the Layton Utah temple site was added to additional prerecorded video footage — ranging from aerial views of the property to the singing of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square — and then made available to be watched via online streaming on Newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org on the original May 30 date.

Members of the Bountiful and Ogden temple districts — portions of both to later constitute the Layton temple district — received an email invitation to watch the streamed proceedings. But the link to the streamed ceremony was available to public to view.

“We’ve tried in our mind’s eye and in our hearts to create an experience that goes into each member’s home,” said Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and Utah Area president who presided, conducted and spoke at the May 23 groundbreaking ceremony.

“So we had to record it early, not wanting to go against current regulations (of limited public gatherings). … We tried to create an experience and tape it a week earlier so that each member in this area will be able to watch it all.”

Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and Utah Area president, speaks during the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah.
Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and Utah Area president, speaks during the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah. Credit: Scott Taylor

So rather than a ceremony attended by a handful — as with the actual May 23 event — or the masses organizers had initially foreseen for the projected May 30 ceremony, all desiring to view the groundbreaking were able to do so, albeit remotely.

The groundbreaking’s video presentation offers both a sense of grandeur with the aerial vantage point and the Tabernacle Choir participation and a sense of simplicity with the May 23 small-scale event’s intimate setting. “It takes us back to our roots with that first Church meeting in 1830 with just a few people present,” Elder Christensen said. “That’s how this feels to me.”

Elder Randy D. Funk, first counselor in the Utah Area presidency, offered the dedicatory prayer of the groundbreaking ceremony.

The prayer’s purpose “is to dedicate this site, this beautiful piece of property here in Layton that has been literally preserved to be the site for the construction of the house of the Lord,” Elder Funk explained after the ceremony.

Elder Randy D. Funk, a General Authority Seventy and first counselor in the Utah Area presidency, offers the dedicatory prayer during the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah.
Elder Randy D. Funk, a General Authority Seventy and first counselor in the Utah Area presidency, offers the dedicatory prayer during the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah. Credit: Scott Taylor

“The dedicatory prayer begins that process,” he added. “It initiates the construction, and it dedicates this land for that purpose — for a blessing on workers, for a blessing on the people in the temple district. It’s an opportunity for really all to have the blessings of the Lord as we now go forth and construct this beautiful temple on this site.”

The ceremonial turning of shovelfuls of dirt came after the close of the meeting, with the Utah Area presidency members and their wives among the first, followed by others attending the ceremony.

Joining Elders Christensen and Funk were Elder Walter A. González, second counselor in the area presidency, and Elder James R. Rasband, who assists the presidency, as well as their wives — Sisters Debbie J. Christensen, Andrea Funk, Zulma Gonzalez and Mary Rasband. The Rasbands were invited to share their testimonies during the meeting.

President Thomas K. Checketts, president of the Layton Utah Holmes Creek Stake, was assigned three months earlier to chair the temple groundbreaking committee. “It has been an adventure because at first, we thought we were going to have thousands here — we were planning for that,” he said. “It’s been quite a ride to go through the COVID-19 pandemic and end up with this type of a ceremony.”

Added Lynette Checketts, who joined her husband on the groundbreaking committee: “We’ve looked forward to this day for a really long time, so to finally have a temple coming is so wonderful, and the setting is gorgeous. People will look to this temple not just because of the pretty setting but because of what it will provide for the people.”

The May 23 groundbreaking — hoped to be a small, quiet videotaping for the May 30 broadcast — ended up attracting enough outside attention and inquiries from local media and passers-by that the Church issued a statement that evening about the morning event.

“Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the need to limit public gatherings, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints determined a traditional groundbreaking for the Layton Utah Temple, with invited guests, was not prudent,” said Church spokeswoman Irene Caso. “The First Presidency assigned the Utah Area Presidency to conduct a small-scale groundbreaking, held Saturday, May 23, so that construction could proceed.”

Members of the Utah Area presidency join committee members of the Layton temple groundbreaking committee and others in turning the first shovelfuls of dirt at the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah.
Members of the Utah Area presidency join committee members of the Layton temple groundbreaking committee and others in turning the first shovelfuls of dirt at the Layton Utah Temple groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah. Credit: Scott Taylor

Demolition of a barn and other structures on the property began Tuesday, May 26. And rather than use the original May 30 date, which is when the groundbreaking ceremony was offered publicly, the temple’s official groundbreaking date will now be listed as May 23, 2020.

The Layton Utah Temple was announced by President Russell M. Nelson on April 1, 2018, in his first general conference as Church president, the first of six temples he has designated for the state of Utah — and among the 43 total worldwide — during his two-plus years of leading the Church.

The temple site — first publicized on July 15, 2019 — is an 11.87-acre parcel in southeast Layton at the intersection of Oak Hills Drive and North Rosewood Lane. The street address is 1400 E. Oak Hills Dr.

On site watching the groundbreaking proceedings and taking a turn with the shovels were members of the Morgan family, which had owned the site and extensive surrounding property for generations, ever since early Latter-day Saints moved from Salt Lake City to the Layton area.

“This site was part of the very earliest ground that was settled when the pioneers came here,” President Checketts said. “And the fact it has been preserved and made available for the temple now is just a wonderful thing.”

On Oct. 8, 2019, an exterior rendering of the Layton Utah Temple was released, showing the projected three-story building of 87,000 square feet with two attached end spires and an angel Moroni statue. The rendering was displayed prominently at the May 23 groundbreaking and was featured in the videotaped presentation.

A framed rendering of the Layton Utah temple and ceremonial shoves are positioned at the temple site prior to the temple's groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah.
A framed rendering of the Layton Utah temple and ceremonial shoves are positioned at the temple site prior to the temple’s groundbreaking ceremony, conducted Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Layton Utah. Credit: Scott Taylor

The Layton temple’s groundbreaking for May 30 was announced on Jan. 23, along with groundbreakings for temples in Richmond, Virginia, and Alabang, Philippines.

Utah has a little more than one-tenth of the Church’s 168 total of temples operating worldwide, with 17. Another — the Saratoga Springs Utah Temple — is under construction after its Oct. 19, 2019, groundbreaking, with the Layton temple now the state’s second in that category of development.

The five additional temples — Washington County, Tooele Valley, Orem, Taylorsville and Syracuse — have all been announced by President Nelson in the past 20 months, and all are awaiting groundbreaking dates.

Utah has 24 temples either operating, being renovated, under construction or announced — again, a little more than one-tenth of the Church’s 225 total temples in those categories.

“We watch, quite frankly, the faithfulness of the Utah Latter-day Saints every day,” said Elder Christensen, noting that every time a new temple is announced and construction begins, “faithfulness just booms and attendance increases.

“The Saints in Layton and the surrounding areas are among some of the most faithful in this Church, and you’re going to see them embrace and love this temple and location.”