“Health Crisis Should Not Become Religious Freedom Crisis”

By Dallan Flake

Posted Jul 9, 2020 | 4:48 PM

On June 17, 2020, Elder David A. Bednar, expressed concern that government has treated religion “less favorably than analogous secular activities.” As an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he delivered an address as part of the BYU Law School Religious Liberty Annual Review. Elder Bednar centered his remarks on how governments have limited religious freedom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He acknowledged that religious freedom cannot be unlimited in the middle of a pandemic, but observed that governments have been too heavy-handed in restricting religious activity.

For example, one state barred Catholic priests from anointing a parishioner with holy oil in the performance of last rites, but allowed lawyers to meet with clients, doctors to treat patients, and caregivers to administer food to satisfy nutritional needs. While services related to alcohol, animals and marijuana have been deemed “essential,” religious organizations and their services were simply deemed “nonessential,” even when their activities could be conducted just as safely. Elder Bednar lamented that, in a rush to protect physical health and security, governments have “acted without regard to the importance of protecting spiritual health and security”—something he deemed “as vital as physical health.”

Elder Bednar encouraged attendees to use the pandemic as a wake-up call, as the crisis has highlighted the importance of defending the borders between religious liberty and governmental authority. He recognized that “drawing proper lines to protect both public health and religious exercise in a pandemic is very challenging,” but nevertheless counseled that “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.” 

Elder Bednar shared his personal reflections on what the pandemic has taught him about the importance of religious freedom:

First, he urged attendees to understand that government power can never be unlimited, and that “despite the obvious need for a proper response to COVID-19, we must not become accustomed to sweeping assertions of governmental power.” 

Second, he explained that “no freedom is more important than religious freedom,” which “stands as a bulwark against unlimited government power.” 

Third, Elder Bednar pointed out the fragility of religious freedom, noting how quickly government had acted to severely limit the right to religious expression. 

Fourth, he noted that although extraordinary times may call for extraordinary measures, “we can no more disregard the valid claims of religious freedom in a time of crisis than we can disregard” other constitutional freedoms. 

“A health crisis,” he explained, “should not become an excuse for a religious freedom crisis.”

Elder Bednar called the pandemic “a unique opportunity to reaffirm and shore up religious freedom.” He invited attendees to “heed the wakeup call, to remember, and to act.”

A recording and transcript of Elder Bednar’s full remarks are available here.