Latter-day Saint leaders make ‘temporary’ changes to meetings, but mask debate still divides Utah worshippers

As cases of COVID-19 continue to explode, Utah’s top Latter-day Saint officials are asking congregational leaders to make “temporary” changes to their services.

In a letter Thursday to bishops and other lay leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Beehive State, Area President Craig C. Christensen and his counselors asked them to discontinue some in-person gatherings — including “second-hour services” (priesthood meeting for men, Relief Society for women, Sunday school for all adults) and weekday youth activities that don’t have a religious purpose — and to limit attendance at baptisms, funerals and weddings to “immediate family members and those who officiate.”

The letter urged these leaders “to be vigilant in maintaining well-known safety measures” such as heeding social distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

While many, if not most, Latter-day Saint wards (congregations) are requiring masks for attendees— and also livestreaming sacrament meetings — the letter stops short of mandating them. That has opened the door for heated debates between pro-maskers and anti-maskers, sometimes splitting wards, neighborhoods and whole towns. It has become a fraught religious and political battle with critics on every side.

Masks and meetings

Eric Huntsman, who teaches religion at Brigham Young University, sees no problem with wearing a mask to church.

“My family wants to be careful to protect ourselves and others, but we value worshipping with our friends and neighbors,” Huntsman said. “By wearing masks, socially distancing, and following other mitigation practices, we can meet with our ward every other week in smaller groups for an hour and do our other classes remotely.”

Annette Copier Klassen, of Cedar City, admitted that she was guilty of downplaying the coronavirus until last week, when she chatted with a friend who lost a loved one to it.

“I will no longer be cavalier in my comments,” Klassen said on Facebook. “If wearing a mask reduces the transmission rate, then I will wear a mask not only to protect myself, but more important, to protect others.”

Some go even further in their desires to rein in the virus.

“I believe that we are a church of prophecy and, as such, we can see the writing on the wall that the pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better,” said Bountiful resident Emily Jensen, the web editor for the online journal Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “To avoid needless deaths, the church must [stop wards from meeting in person] and go online in areas where the hospitals are becoming or already are overwhelmed, which is throughout the Mountain West.”

Temples, too, should close again, even though they are drastically limiting attendance and do require masks on all who enter, Jensen said. “Having church and temples stay open during a surge punishes those leaders who have to be there in person at church and those patrons and workers who feel obligated to work at the temples.”

On the other side are Latter-day Saints who refuse to wear masks or even attend services where local leaders are insisting that face coverings be worn.

The issue has challenged the faith of Buffy Snell, an independent political and religious activist in American Fork.

“Wearing a mask violates my religious liberties,” Snell wrote in an email. “Whether or not anyone agrees with me, I have a deep spiritual conviction that wearing a mask is a satanic societal ritual meant to initiate us into a ‘new’ normal, or a new world order. … It is, in part, the mark of the beast spoken of in the Book of Revelation.”

Her ward has been meeting in person, she said, “but I have not been back since limits on our worship services have been put into place. It is advised that we wear masks, but I will not.”

Snell still believes that “the church is true,” she added, “but I no longer have faith in man. I think it was always misplaced.”

An out for churches

The Utah Area Presidency’s latest letter was prompted by Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide mask mandate — an order that exempts “religious services.”

Utah Episcopal Bishop Scott Hayashi is among those who maintains faith groups should not be exempt.

“I appreciate Gov. Herbert respecting the First Amendment on the right to worship without interference from the state,” Hayashi said in a statement to the diocese, which discontinued services after the governor’s order. But "if there is any group of people who ought to be the most vigilant and strict in behavior to limit the spread of the virus, it is the religious community.”

The state mandate does “encourage” faith-based organizations to “implement protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” and remains in force until Nov. 23 — unless it is extended.

Many Latter-day Saint congregations in Utah have been holding small in-person services since September, when the faith’s governing First Presidency gave the go-ahead, while noting that “local circumstances and regulations regarding COVID-19 vary, sometimes within the same church area.”

In a supplement to that letter, the Utah Area Presidency wrote that in-person Sunday worship services should be held every week and each gathering could include up to 150 people.

The new guidelines issued Thursday reduce the number of permitted participants to a socially distanced 99.

Church and state

Latter-day Saint businessman Orrin Andersen believes governmental mask mandates go well past their assigned responsibilities.

“Every private enterprise and government entity is within their rights to dictate the standards of doing business on their premises,” said the Pleasant Grove resident. “But I really struggle with the unlegislated standards being imposed not just on my business but into my home and family gatherings. Just about any intrusion into my life and self-determination is a degree of tyranny, as many of our past religious leaders have said.”

The church, on the other hand, is also a private entity, he said. “It must balance the actual and real needs of its members, while walking a fine line of government compliance worldwide.”

How the Utah-based faith “is dealing with [the pandemic] and its members on the subject,” Andersen said, “is a very broad, complex and touchy subject for many.”

The one place it makes most sense to insist on masks “is in our temples,” he said, “The vast majority of temple workers worldwide are in the high-risk categories. And many attending the temple — no matter their personal risk level — should always be considerate of those serving there and placing themselves at risk on behalf of the many patrons.”

Andersen has “faith in the protective promises of temple work and the mantle of temple clothing,” he said, “but like most of the Lord’s promises, fulfillment of those blessings is dependent upon the obedience, wisdom and prudence of the receiving parties.”

He applauds church leaders for creating temporary policies and guidance about COVID-19 both locally and globally. “It has everything to do with good leadership and sending a message to all.”

Latter-day Saint leaders trust that good people will use “wisdom well before mandates or oppressive laws are needed,” he said. “Church guidance is not tyranny in any way.”

Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City attorney and a founder of the By Common Consent website, sees no reason why mask-wearing should give rise to so much contention.

“It seems odd that we have turned such a simple thing into such a charged political controversy," he said. "It reminds me of the people who would not look on the bronze serpent Moses put on a pole. It’s not hard to wear a mask, it’s not especially intrusive, and yet it has become the symbol of a broader rejection of perceived government intrusion. We shouldn’t fight over something so small that can mean so much for public health.”