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More than 100 Christian leaders have launched a legal challenge over the ban on communal worship under lockdown restrictions.
They claim worship has been “criminalised” and the ban has “inflicted a terrible human cost” on congregations for whom collective worship is a core element of their religious life.
The restrictions on public worship breach article nine of the human rights convention that protects the right to freedom of religion, they argue.
The claim for judicial review by 122 church leaders from different traditions is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, an arm of the conservative evangelical organisation Christian Concern.
The ban on services of worship in England lasts until early December. In Wales, a similar ban was lifted at the end of a three-week firebreak, but could be reinstated.
In England, places of worship are closed with exceptions for funerals, broadcast acts of worship, individual prayer, essential voluntary public services, formal childcare, and certain other exempted activities. Gathering for worship or collective prayer is not allowed.
The claim says: “The English and Welsh governments have now introduced two successive sets of lockdown measures, which have completely prohibited and criminalised public communal worship, a core aspect of religious life for the claimants and their congregations.
“With these measures, the governments have inflicted a terrible human cost, without rigorous consideration of less onerous restrictions, and as part of a package which leaves places of worship open for secular activities.”
Pastor Ade Omooba, who is leading the legal challenge, 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.”
The government must “recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state”.
The ban on public worship has also been challenged by the leaders of the Church of England, the Catholic church and Orthodox Judaism, along with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Pentecostal representatives.
They wrote a joint letter to Boris Johnson earlier this month saying there was “no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship”.
Theresa May, the former prime minister, also raised concerns about the ban in parliament, suggesting that “making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship for the best of intentions sets a precedent that could be misused for a government in the future with the worst of intentions”.
Omooba said: “Never in our history have our churches closed – not during wars, plagues or famines. Instead we have been places of respite and hope.
“The government seems not to understand the very important and long-held constitutional position of the independence of church and civil government … The very last thing that should be closed is churches, and then only with their agreement in times of dire emergency for a very short time.”
Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican bishop of Rochester, cited “ancient liberties of the church, which have been won through hard struggle over the course of our history. These liberties include freedom of belief, expression and worship. The principle of the freedom of worship needs to be maintained.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Communal worship ‘criminalised’ under lockdown, church leaders say | Coronavirus