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In our opinion: When government mistakes religion as ‘nonessential’

It is a critical failure that some did not recognize religion as essential to the lives of billions of people worldwide in the midst of a pandemic

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Chapel pews sit empty in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Salt Lake Stake Center in downtown Salt Lake City amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It is a critical failure of some governments that they did not recognize religion as essential to the lives of billions of people worldwide in the midst of a pandemic.

Americans remember well, at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year, federal and local governments began using the term “essential businesses” to dictate which organizations could continue to operate in exception to lockdown orders and other responses to the spreading virus. That too few acknowledged religious exercise as essential shows a lack of understanding of how important religion is to so many participants and how important it is to a functioning society.

The significance of religion in people’s lives is a fact acknowledged across faith traditions. Rabbi Yosie Levine of New York City declared that “our faith and our faith community are so essential to our lives that we’ve moved heaven and earth to make room for them.” He also reported success in cooperating with the government to find creative solutions to worshipping in a pandemic, saying that his shul collaborated with the city and police department to make arrangements for outdoor services.

Earlier this week, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this publication, participated remotely in the annual G-20 Interfaith Forum, where he argued that the reaction of governments worldwide to religious communities has created a “crisis of legitimacy” of the response to COVID-19. He is correct.

In his remarks, Elder Bednar advocated for “respect, accommodation and cooperation — for creative solutions that mitigate the threat of COVID-19 while not cutting people off from” their religious exercise, adding that “in many instances, the lack of such respect has backfired, creating suspicion toward government and the undermining of its legitimate efforts to control the pandemic.”

He also pointed out that political leaders’ deeper and more respectful understanding of religion naturally leads to more effective public policy responses. Regardless of the religious affiliation of political leaders, their ability and willingness to respect the essential role of religion in their constituents’ lives is itself essential to enacting more legitimate policy — and comes with it the added bonus of the full force of religion’s influence on shaping public attitude and in enacting societal good.

At the same interfaith forum last year, Elder Gerrit W. Gong observed that “religious communities have both the surge capacity to respond to immediate needs such as arise with natural disasters and also staying capacity to help address long-term human needs,” adding that such communities “offer unique connection between international and local organizations.”

This surge capacity spans both faith traditions and needs. The Florida Baptist Disaster Relief has more than 400 volunteers spread out around northwestern Florida, helping victims in the wake of Hurricane Sally, and Muslims at the Islamic Institute of America in Michigan raised more than $110,000 for victims of the Beirut port explosion two months ago.

To dismiss the exercise of religion as nonessential is to also dismiss the benefits to society that faith traditions can provide. Furthermore, as Elder Bednar suggested, it can backfire on the government’s legitimate enterprises by stirring suspicion toward the state’s intentions — fueling fears of persecution and encroachments of religious liberty.

It’s understandable that political leaders want to keep their constituents safe in the face of an unknown virus, and balancing the right to worship with practical safety precautions is necessary. But leaders should have given more careful consideration to the essentialness — and practical, real-world benefits — of religion and its communities en masse.

We concur with Elder Bednar’s hope that “government officials and faith leaders can collectively respond to COVID-19 in ways that protect both physical and spiritual health.” That starts with respect and a focus on what truly is essential.