Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke about the government's role in protecting religious freedom at the 2020 Religious Freedom Annual Review hosted by the Brigham Young University Law School.
Elder Bednar was the Review's keynote speaker for the online conference and streamed his remarks live from his office Wednesday morning.
Elder Bednar shared the parable of the prodigal son, emphasizing the way the prodigal son changed after what Elder Bednar called a “wake-up call.” He said, “Just as the famine for the prodigal son was a pivotal turning point in his life, so COVID-19 can help us realize what we have not realized before.”
Among these realizations is the essential nature of religious freedom, especially amidst closures and government restrictions for public safety. Elder Bednar gave four reflections he has had on religious freedom.
1. Government power can never be unlimited.
Elder Bednar said checks and balances such as the Constitution and the rule of law were created to help constrain government from absolute power. While liberty has limits, so does government authority.
“No doubt an emergency on the scale of COVID-19 justifies strong measures to protect the public, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that many of these measures are extraordinary assertions of government power that can dramatically constrain our basic freedoms,” he said. “The power of government must have limits.”
2. Religious freedom is paramount among our fundamental rights.
Elder Bednar said the freedom of religion is our first freedom, not only because of the order of the Bill of Rights, but because of the moral importance it represents. It protects the right to believe in and act on moral agency and provides a space to live according to those beliefs.
“Nothing government does is more important than fostering the conditions wherein religion can flourish,” he said.
3. Religious freedom is fragile.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the government shut down gathering for religious worship, while deeming other activities essential and allowing them to continue.
“In the name of protecting physical health and security or advancing other social values, government often acted without regard to the importance of protecting spiritual health and security,” Elder Bednar said. “It often seemed to forget that securing religious freedom is as vital as physical health."
4. In a time of crisis, sensitive tools are necessary to balance the demands of liberty with the just interests of society.
Elder Bednar said the key principle is that religion should not be treated less favorably than analogous secular activities. With creativity and determination, a solution can be found that keeps others safe and doesn’t infringe upon the right to religious freedom.
“We can no more disregard the valid claims of religious freedom in a time of crisis than we can disregard the valid claims of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures,” he said. “A health crisis should not become an excuse for a religious freedom crisis.”
In the story of the prodigal son, the son realized the error of his ways after his wake-up call. He remembered who he was and made an effort to realign his ways. Elder Bednar said in the time of COVID-19, we as a society may have also forgotten who we are and what is most precious.
“Perhaps we have not fully remembered that faith and the right to exercise it are central to our identity as believers and to all that we deem good and right and worthy of protection,” Elder Bednar concluded. “Now is the time for us to heed the wakeup call, to remember and to act.”