Lessons from the pandemic can light our nation’s path ahead

Written by William C. Duncan

February 4, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the darker periods of time in the lives of many people and for our nation as a whole. But vaccines are bringing with them the hope that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. That means we have the opportunity to look back and learn from this difficult experience.

Though coronavirus restrictions are still modifying much in our lives – including the way the Utah Legislature is doing business this session – it is not too early to begin implementing some of the lessons learned during the pandemic. Doing so, in fact, can transform a dark time into something that has lit the path to becoming better individuals, families and even a better society.

Among these lessons are what we have learned about how worship services and other religious activities should be treated. It is abundantly clear that such activities are not unessential, as some early misguided pronouncements suggested. Rather, most Americans recognize that faith is a critical part of individual identity and a source of tangible help, solace and motivation in times of crisis.

Balancing that reality with the legitimate concerns of the public in the containment of a highly contagious virus proved tricky. Many religious groups accepted appropriate limits on gathering as a way of being good citizens. This – and wise public policy in states like Utah – avoided many conflicts.

In other places, regulations were onerous and unnecessarily confining. The U.S. Department of Justice, for instance, warned the city of San Francisco that its policy allowing only one worshipper at a time in church buildings was overbroad and likely unconstitutional when retail businesses were allowed to operate in much smaller spaces as long as they operated at a limited percentage of normal capacity.

Eventually, as the pandemic regulations continued in place for months, challenges to public health restrictions on religious worship worked through the court system. The U.S. Supreme Court has established the baseline principle that religious groups should be treated the same as other whose activities pose a similar risk.

This would be an appropriate time for Utah and other states to begin adopting these principles in their own laws governing emergency response to avoid unnecessary conflicts and limitations in the event of future emergencies.

At least one bill pending in the Utah Legislature, HB 184, recognizes some of the needs of religious groups in times of emergency. As currently drafted, it would give a categorical exemption from emergency regulations to worship services. Though the bill is well-meaning, it would probably be more appropriate to balance legitimate concerns for public health and the need to protect access to religious activities. The Supreme Court’s approach of requiring equivalent treatment of religious gatherings and other types of gatherings would be a better basis for emergency powers legislation in the state.

HB 184 raises another important issue that should be addressed in state rules on emergency powers—the need to provide access to clergy and religious sacraments for those who are ill or at risk. Though sermons and religious messages can be provided remotely through technology, many religious sacraments cannot. For those who are ill and vulnerable, this access may be particularly important, even crucial in their minds for salvation – but even putting aside truth claims of a patient’s particular religion, access to such sacraments will contribute to their peace of mind and thus may hasten recovery, strengthen relationships with others, and provide an antidote to isolation.

It is encouraging that HB 184 recognizes this need. With appropriate modifications to adjust for serious public health risks that might be created by personal contact with an ill or infected person, it would be good for the Utah Legislature to provide a way for those isolated by public health emergencies to receive consolation and sacraments from the representatives of their faith.

Between the extremes of a total exemption from public health restrictions or the treatment of religious worship as an “unessential” activity, there is plenty of room for public policy solutions that recognize the critical and essential nature of faith, particularly in times of crisis. The Utah Legislature can set an example for other states by clarifying the scope of the government’s authority to impact religious gatherings and practices in an emergency setting while still allowing measures to protect public health.

That would be a good outcome from a difficult period. And if Utahns (and Americans) need anything right now, it is the reassurance that this turbulent time holds the promise of a brighter future ahead.

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