In our opinion: The right to worship should never be cast aside in a pandemic

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that seeks to promote religious liberty, “America’s first freedom,” to the world.

It was a long-overdue move; one that, if followed correctly, would use the national ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and other U.S. officials to not only promote religious liberty, but to make it a priority of the nation’s foreign policy and an important factor in deciding how to distribute foreign assistance programs. The order specifically instructs the heads of agencies, when meeting with their counterparts in foreign governments, to “raise concerns about international religious freedom and cases that involve individuals imprisoned because of their religion.”

We welcome this new emphasis. The order specifically recognizes religious freedom as “a moral and national security imperative.” That is exactly right.

However, the order focuses exclusively outward, dealing only with the nation’s interactions with foreign governments. In order to have moral credibility in this effort, the nation should look inward, as well.

It should begin with an honest examination of how state and local governments inhibited the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns this newspaper) raised concerns recently about how quickly governments moved to limit and disregard religious worship as economies shut down “nonessential” activities during the pandemic.

While the pandemic remains a serious public health threat requiring appropriate government restrictions, including limiting the size of gatherings, he noted that other services, such as the sale of alcohol, marijuana, gasoline, as well as other secular activities, were defined as essential and allowed to proceed. Religious freedom, meanwhile, is “as vital as physical health,” he said. “Gathering for worship, ritual and fellowship is essential; it is not merely an enjoyable social activity.”

The last rites, administered by a Catholic priest, were considered nonessential regardless of the precautions taken. So were other ministerial functions that could be conducted using safety precautions.

A year ago, Pew Research Center reported that while the United States enjoys a high degree of religious freedom compared with many other countries, it faces increased antagonism toward faith groups within the country, and a decline in a majority trust that religion has a role to play in solving social problems.

Partisanship and public hostility could inhibit the growth of religious institutions and inhibit the good they do, not the least of which is exhibited in the type of volunteer work that has become a hallmark of American problem solving. Volunteerism engages religious worshippers to a much higher degree than any other group.

Charitable giving is another positive byproduct of religious liberty, with one-third of contributions in the United States going toward religious causes.

The Trump administration clearly understands that freedom and liberty cannot thrive anywhere without a fundamental guarantee of religious liberty. But this has not been an understanding peculiar to Republican administrations through the years. It has been a fundamental part of American exceptionalism and a key to the nation’s health and prosperity.

It must be taken out of the realm of partisan politics and once again placed squarely among the fundamental pillars of American life that enjoy broad, bipartisan support.

The current pandemic, although unique to the current generation of Americans, is something the nation is bound to experience again some time. Congress ought to review how governments reacted in light of constitutionally guaranteed rights, then craft legislation ensuring that those rights, and especially the right to worship and freely exercise religious beliefs, are given the highest priority in the future.

Never again should the right to worship be swiftly cast aside as nonessential.

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