Elder Bednar’s important comments today on religious freedom and COVID-19

Elder Bednar spoke today at during the Religious Freedom Annual Review on the importance of religious freedom. 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.

Here are some highlights from the LDS newsroom:

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.
Elder Bednar - BYU Law Conference
Elder Bednar - BYU Law Conference

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.”

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

11 thoughts on “Elder Bednar’s important comments today on religious freedom and COVID-19

  1. I’m happy to read this. Certainly better late than never.

    “we, too, as a society may have forgotten something”

    Some of us never forgot because we’ve been vigilant against government overreach mingled with moral hypocrisy. What’s interesting is I know the brethren are too

    I truly wish the church had given voice to these concerns from the outset. Because there was no voice to temper the government action, liberties have been run over. Surely if the name Mormon can be a great victory for Satan, what’s happened with our status of the right to assemble is just as great a satanic victory, if not more so for it’s affect on all people.

    God healed the leper. He didn’t tell others to shun them and confine themselves. I find no instance in scripture that countenances what has happened. Maybe someone can point me to some. But I see plenty of cases of people with less resources, less opportunity, less wealth, etc. facing the future with faith

    But anyway, if it sounds harsh, I’m also understanding of why the church responded the way it did. It’s clear from various laws, court cases, regulatory decisions, etc. the church has a 50-50 shot, best case, at having it’s viewpoint treated fairly.

    But it’s the Lord who said we need to wear out our lives bringing those who work in the dark to light. Hopefully, they’ll reveal themselves soon enough.

  2. Sueter, because I believe the Church is directed by the Savior, I think there were reasons for the Church not to speak out loudly on this issue until now. Of course one of the obvious reasons is that the Church believes in people following the law. If the Church had promoted resistance to the law, it would have involved most Church members worldwide risking arrest. This is simply not something the modern-day church does (even if some of us wish the Church would do this at times). My completely personal feeling (with no basis in revelation) is that there will come a time when the Church simply has to advise peaceful civil disobedience, but that time is not yet.

    I think we should also be open to the idea that the Church was guided to allow this to happen so people see how authoritarian governments have become and how willing they are to throw away the most basic civil liberties, including religious liberties. It is a scary moment, and I hold out a small bit of hope that people will rise up to try to protect these liberties. (Yes, that small bit of hope may be naive, but still…..).

    My last point would be that there were, in some isolated specific cases, real reasons to urge societal lockdowns, at least for a few weeks. I in no way endorse what happened, with power-mad tyrants trying to enforce lockdowns for more than three months now, but it was simply a fact that in some locations the hospitals were about to be overwhelmed. Hopefully we have learned that the only defensible reason for a temporary lockdown would be if we are ever threatened with a situation where medical services are unable to deal with a sickness. But of course that is me being naive again. Most people likely did not learn that lesson, and government leaders will happily move to lock down everybody again, perhaps as early as the coming months.

  3. Elder Bednar‘s remarks are most appreciated. And they mirror similar talks given at BYU and General Conference by President Oaks.

    Religious freedom is under attack not only in countries where we would suspect such things but in the U.S. and most of the western world as well. And if the Corona virus pandemic has shown anything then that we could lose freedom in an instance over night. That – for me – is the most frightening lesson from Corona.

  4. Excuse my ramblings.

    I was a bit perplexed with Elder Bednar’s use of pandemic examples to make his point of limited government (which I happen to agree with). I found it unconvincing. Were there examples of government overreach during this unusual period of time? Sure. Things were done in haste and there is a very concerning negative perspective on religiosity which permeates popular culture. Unsurprisingly, religion got dismissed from the equation. We should work to assure that does not happen again. But the problem is not immediately unchecked government authority. In these cases, I believe that it is society’s perspective on organized religion. Religion and religious liberty definitely needs a PR firm.

    There is another issue with how Elder Bednar made his case. Is gathering with fellow religionists in large groups really fundamental to religious practice, especially during a pandemic? Not really. I am not so sure that weekly gathering as a religious community is really as essential to many faiths as Elder Bednar claims. Even Shabbat for Jews is a family celebration. Many Latter-day Saints enjoyed home church. At least I did. If put to a vote, I would opt to sell the ward houses and meet monthly in homes or online. I am not likely to get my way so I will look back at 2020-2021 with fondness, IF the virus does not kill me.
    It seems Elder Bednar implied that justified limitations on gatherings of all types (and which is constitutional) was an unprecedented attack on religious gatherings (which would be unconstitutional if they were singled out). That seems a bit hyperbolic or is just poor argumentation. Now pointing at specific cases and arguing that they violated religious liberty or were approaching violating those liberties, well, that makes more sense to me. But right or wrong, the vast majority of Americans were comfortable with temporary limitations on ALL types of gatherings. Except athletic events. Limitations on athletic events would likely cause a civil war!

  5. Old Man, I am sure you know this but did not consider it in your comments: it is not just about the weekly meetings. Baptisms have been delayed and family members cannot go to baptisms. The temples are (mostly) closed. People who should be ministered to are not being ministered to because of various intrusive government orders. Funeral attendance has been limited. I too have enjoyed having Sacrament at home, but out church is about much, much more than Sacrament.

  6. Geoff: “If the Church had promoted resistance to the law…”
    I agree with your next thoughts. But the church doesn’t have to promote resistance to the law. The church is smarter than just about any governmental agency (not in terms of research, but policy, principle, etc)

    The church could have outlined what should be done to preserve liberty, and be prudent with gathering etc. Similar to how the church files court cases in defense or opposition to various things. We need principled leadership here with an understanding of long term implications from short term policy, and it’s clear the brethren know This covid response could be a larger disaster in the long term than the catastrophes the virus and our response has created in the short term

    Old man: “Religion and religious liberty definitely needs a PR firm.”

    That’s not how rights work. You don’t need a pr firm to protect rights from governmental overreach by promoting those rights in the court of public opinion. If religion is someday so unpopular only a handful of us still practice it, it’s still a right.

    “Not really. I am not so sure that weekly gathering as a religious community is really as essential to many faiths”

    That’s not how the right to assemble and practice free exercise of religion works. We shouldn’t have to convince you or anyone else what is essential to our faith. And yes it’s essential to gather. It’s essential to eat. You can go days without eating. How long a particular faith can endure without gathering, is a different question. But a faith shouldn’t have to prove whether or not it can endure — if a faith is unable to grow, based on government policy, it’s rights have been curtailed.

    If other activities are permitted, but gathering is not, that’s an unjust curtailing of those rights.

    Now, this does not say that the church shouldn’t have decided on their own to suspend physical gathering as was done. That’s a different question than government shutdown of church, but continuation of so many other things. It’s easy enough for the church to demonstrate it can comply with limited gathering policies, as is being done now. Certainly the church if taking greater care than home depot and Walmart etc.

  7. Sueter, agreed on this: “I agree with your next thoughts. But the church doesn’t have to promote resistance to the law. The church is smarter than just about any governmental agency (not in terms of research, but policy, principle, etc)

    The church could have outlined what should be done to preserve liberty, and be prudent with gathering etc. Similar to how the church files court cases in defense or opposition to various things. We need principled leadership here with an understanding of long term implications from short term policy, and it’s clear the brethren know This covid response could be a larger disaster in the long term than the catastrophes the virus and our response has created in the short term.”

    My question is: WHY didn’t the Church do this, and I don’t have a complete answer, except for my comment above on June 18.

  8. What is that little LDS urban legend about the Constitution hanging by a thread and it will take Elders of the Church stepping in to save it?

    Well, saying the Constitution will hang by a thread might be a bit much but it isn’t too much of a stretch to say our right to religious freedom might hang by a thread.

    Especially with this week’s ruling by the Supreme Court on LGBTQ rights and Justice Gorsuch’s comment about ‘religious rights will have to be looked at” I can see Elder Bednar and others testifying before Congress about the need to protect religious freedom in the not too distant future.

  9. In my opinion…. although the rhetoric has gotten steadily plainer over the last 35 years, the Brethren still speak softly and in a sort of code. I can see several reasons for this. Big ships turn slowly. Everything is subject to outside scrutiny. And mercy towards those who might be half-asleep, weak, or duped by outside forces.

    I think Pres Nelson signaled that he was not going to _publicly_ say every needful thing when he said listening to and heeding the Spirit was going to be necessary even for _survival_. At least that was my takeaway — that obedience to only the openly spoken things was going to be insufficient.

    Did anyone else interpret it that way?

  10. Hi Geoff,
    The way I see it, religious activities have been curtailed, but so have social, economic and educational activities. Now if religious activities were curtailed while similar secular activities have not, then we would have a much clearer case. I can find only a few examples across this immense nation. I agree that our religion is about much more than meetings, but to construe that government actions have been anti-religious? I just don’t see that. Anti-freedom temporarily? Yes. Whether these actions were justified or effective is another discussion.

    By current standards in Constitutional interpretation, government actions must be neutral towards religion. If government favored certain religious activities over other types of activities, we would be bumping into the Establishment clause. If government restrictions target religion unfairly, we bump into the Free Exercise Clause.

    That is exactly how rights work. Call it PR, call it education… Unless rights exist conceptually in the hearts and minds of the people and their leaders, they never are reflected in our practices, laws and public policy. We can’t defend something we know little about. We can’t promote higher or clearer fences around religious liberty without knowing exactly what it is and is not.

    Nope. If the Brethren want something done, they better speak with clarity. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8)

    This is a very important discussion to have.

  11. I understand where Elder Bednar is coming from. It might be that “neutrality” is okay as a justification for some limited infringements, but it might be insufficient for fundamental infringements. Gathering is a fundamental part of religious expression. Religious gatherings were (and some places still are) banned, but government gatherings were allowed, and protests were allowed. What is done is water under the bridge and cannot be undone, but it is appropriate to talk about it as we think of the future.

    I love the 1 Cor. 14:8 quote!

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