PROVO — When governments around the world swiftly banned religious gatherings as COVID-19 advanced, they dangerously breached boundaries protecting the free exercise of religious freedom and proved just how fragile it is, a Latter-day Saint apostle said Wednesday.
The pandemic was a wake-up call about the fragility of religious freedom, said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He said government power must have limits and shared examples that he said illustrated “a profound devaluing of religion.” The pandemic provided evidence that balancing public health needs and religious exercise during a crisis can be a major challenge, Elder Bednar said.
He plainly stated that he was not claiming religious freedom can be unlimited during a pandemic or that all government officials disregarded religious rights. But he said that while strong measures to address COVID-19 were justified, “extraordinary assertions of governmental power” can dramatically constrain basic freedoms.
“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,” he said. “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’s remarks were the keynote address on the first day of Brigham Young University’s three-day Religious Freedom Annual Review. The event was livestreamed on YouTube without an audience due to COVID-19 restrictions and included Dr. Alaa Murabit, a U.N. high-level commissioner on health employment and economic growth.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are scheduled to be part of a review panel on Thursday. Friday’s program includes former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Speaking by video from his office, Elder Bednar described an alarm clock buzzing and ringing.
“Our world has seemingly been filled recently with strong ‘wake-up calls,’” Elder Bednar 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.”
The wake-up calls he listed included the limitations of the world’s supply chain, its just-in-time delivery systems and its national and local health care systems.
“We have witnessed the government’s swift, well-intentioned, but often dangerous breaching of the boundaries that protect the free exercise of religion. Do we hear the buzzer on the alarm clock? This is a wake-up call for all of us,” he said. “Those fundamental boundaries and protections must be healed, renewed and fortified.”
He illustrated his point with the parable of the prodigal son, who “came to himself” during a natural calamity, realized the errors of his ways and that he had forgotten himself, and made a course correction.
Elder Bednar repeatedly acknowledged that the pandemic was an emergency on a global scale, but he said the governmental restrictions on religious gatherings were extraordinary and that democratic peoples must not become accustomed to “sweeping assertions of governmental power.”
“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,” he said.
He called gathering a fundamental right at the center of religious freedom.
“Gathering for worship, ritual and fellowship is essential; it is not merely an enjoyable social activity,” he said.
Latter-day Saints seek to gather Abraham’s scattered family to the ordinances and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to eternally gather their families to God in the temple and to gather in congregations to take the sacrament and to strengthen, serve and fellowship each other.
“Gathering, in short, is at the core of faith and religion,” he said. “Indeed, if the faithful are not gathering, sooner or later they will begin to scatter. And because gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom.”
He said extraordinary assertions of government power can constrain basic freedoms and must not be normalized.
“Invoking emergency powers, government executives summarily imposed numerous orders and directives that in many ways are analogous to martial law,” he said. “These executive orders are unlike laws enacted through the ordinary give-and-take of the democratic process.”
In fact, Elder Bednar said, “The power of government must have limits,” adding, “This time of restriction and confinement has confirmed for me that no freedom is more important than religious freedom,” he said.
For example, one U.S. state allowed lawyers, doctors and caregivers to meet with people to administer to their legal, health and nutritional needs but did not allow a clergy member to administer to a person’s religious needs when risks were equal for all.
“This example and many more like it illustrate a profound devaluing of religion. We can and must do better,” he said.
Other North American jurisdictions declared “essential” services related to alcohol, animals, marijuana and other concerns while religious organizations and their services were deemed “nonessential,” even when their activities could be conducted safely, he said.
Because government “often seemed to forget that securing religious freedom is as vital as physical health, Elder Bednar called on people of faith and religious leaders to act to reaffirm and shore up religious freedom.
Elder Bednar shared what he called two key principles: “Religion should not be treated less favorably than analogous secular activities” and “policymakers, even in a crisis, should limit the exercise of religion only when it truly is necessary to preserve public health and safety.”
“While believers and their religious organizations must be good citizens in a time of crisis,” he added, “we cannot allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply ‘nonessential.’ Never again must the fundamental right to worship God be trivialized below the ability to buy gasoline.”
The other speaker on Wednesday morning was Murabit, a Libyan Canadian physician and a U.N. high-level commissioner on health employment and economic growth. She spoke about why religious freedom matters to her.
Murabit, a Muslim, asked viewers to leverage their faith to increase equality.
“I would not be here where I am,” she said, “not in my work, not in my personal life, not in my impact on the world — were it not for my faith.”
Elder Bednar’s full transcript is available here.