Church leaders launch legal challenge over lockdown closure of places of worship

Pastors claim human right to express religious faith infringed by second lockdown

Tim Wyatt
Saturday 14 November 2020 17:02 GMT
All church services were cancelled at the start of the second lockdown, to the fury of some pastors and faith leaders
All church services were cancelled at the start of the second lockdown, to the fury of some pastors and faith leaders (PA)

A group of more than 100 church leaders has launched a legal challenge against the government’s decision to force places of worship to stop services during the second lockdown.  

The pastors are seeking to judicially review both the Westminster government’s restrictions and the Welsh government’s ban on public worship services during its own “firebreak” lockdown that recently ended.  

They claim that stopping believers from attending church services is a breach of Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees the freedom to express religious beliefs.  

Ade Omooba, a prominent Pentecostal church leader who is leading the group, said: “We have been left with no alternative but to pursue a judicial review on this crucial issue and at this significant moment for the freedom to worship in church in this country.

"We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state."  

Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were all forced to shut for several weeks during the first lockdown in March, with most faith groups moving worship online.  

Gradually, places of worship were then allowed to reopen for individual private prayer, before socially distanced public services were permitted again from June.  

However, with the imposition of the second lockdown, churches and other places of worship were ordered to stop holding any kind of in-person services, except for small funerals. They are allowed to keep their buildings open for individual prayer or to broadcast a service online.  

The church leaders argue that there was no need to shut down Sunday services again, because places of worship have managed to create Covid-secure protocols which, they claim, mean gathering to worship does not risk spreading the virus.  

The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, insisted they did acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic but said protecting freedom of religious expression was vital. 

“The principle of the freedom of worship needs to be maintained and churches have been assiduous in maintaining safety in buildings and among worshippers,” he said.

“There is widespread unease among many church leaders about the lack of evidence and consultation regarding the ban on collective worship.

“Church leaders see collective worship not as an optional extra but as vital to the mental and spiritual health of believers, especially for the lonely and vulnerable.”

Other faith leaders have objected to the government’s rules, including the leaders of both the Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales, without taking their criticism as far as beginning legal action.  

Other religious bodies have also expressed concerns, including the Muslim Council of Britain. In a statement at the start of the lockdown, they said: “Given the centrality of congregational prayer to so many Muslims’ lives, it is not clear why places of worship are grouped alongside other public venues where social interaction is conducted very differently.”

The government’s own places-of-worship taskforce, which has been consulted through the pandemic, has also written to Boris Johnson, arguing that there was no scientific justification for shutting down services again given the great lengths taken to make them Covid-secure.

But a spokesperson for the government said it would not budge on the restrictions. “The government doesn't take imposing further restrictions lightly, but this action is vital in tackling the spread of the virus.

"Places of worship bring huge solace and comfort to people, especially during this challenging time.

"That is why they remain open during this period of new restrictions for private prayer and other vital functions like funerals.

"We continue to work closely with senior faith leaders and the places of worship taskforce, as we have throughout the pandemic."  

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