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COVID-19 Crisis—A Wake-Up Call for Religious Freedom

Elder Bednar discusses the pandemic at BYU Law School conference

“Our world has seemingly been filled recently with strong wake-up calls,” said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“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,” said Elder Bednar.

The apostle’s remarks were streamed live Wednesday morning during the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School. This year’s conference is being held online due to the pandemic.

                            

Elder Bednar's remarks begin at the 32:25 mark

Elder Bednar said the pandemic has alerted us to the limitations in the food supply chain; our dependence on other nations for essential medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and other products; constraints in inventory and delivery systems for manufacturing plants and retail businesses; deficiencies in our national and local health care systems; the importance of defending the borders between personal liberty, constitutional rights and governmental authority; and attacks on the freedoms of religion, speech and assembly.

“The buzzer on the COVID-19 alarm clock just continues to ring and ring and ring,” he stressed, while speaking from his office on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Impacts on Religious Freedom

Elder Bednar warned there is a danger in limiting a religious organization’s right to gather. “Gathering, in short, is at the core of faith and religion. 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.”

When the pandemic hit, congregations of many faiths around the world canceled worship services and other activities to abide by government restrictions for large group gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“I believe it is vital for us to recognize that the sweeping governmental restrictions that were placed on religious gatherings at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis truly were extraordinary,” Elder Bednar explained. “No other event in our lifetime—and perhaps no other event since the founding of this nation—has caused quite this kind of widespread disruption of religious gatherings and worship.” 

Four Personal Reflections

Elder Bednar offered four personal reflections on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Government power can never be unlimited.
  • Religious freedom is paramount among our fundamental rights.
  • Religious freedom is fragile.
  • In a time of crisis, sensitive tools are necessary to balance demands of religious liberty with the just interests of society.
 

In North America, Elder Bednar pointed out, jurisdictions deemed services related to alcohol, animals and marijuana as essential, while the services of religious organizations were classified as nonessential, even when those activities could be safely conducted.

The senior Church leader cited examples in one state where Catholic priests were barred from anointing a parishioner with holy oil in the performance of last rites, even if that person did not have COVID-19. In the same state, Latter-day Saints were not allowed to perform baptisms. 

“The power of government must have limits,” asserted Elder Bednar.

“This time of restriction and confinement has confirmed for me that no freedom is more important than religious freedom,” said the senior leader of the global faith. “Protecting a person’s physical health from the coronavirus is, of course, important, but so is a person’s spiritual health.”

Elder Bednar continued, “While believers and their religious organizations must be good citizens in a time of crisis, never again can we 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.”

Elder Bednar said the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the fragility of religious freedom and the need to shore it up.

“In our understandable desire to combat COVID-19, we, too, as a society may have forgotten something about who we are and what is most precious,” he concluded. “Now is the time for us to heed the wake-up call, to remember and to act.”

The annual religious freedom event at BYU attracts nationally recognized policy makers, scholars and religious leaders. Sessions can be viewed online for free in English and Spanish at iclrs.org and in English only on YouTube.

Read the full transcript.

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