Church leaders welcome end to church restrictions17 July 2020 Issued by: Christian Legal Centre
The government’s new regulations for the full reopening of churches, which allows churches to hold services, exactly mirror the requests of the 25 church leaders who had written to the government urging that churches be allowed to reopen without further legal restrictions.
Following pre-action correspondence threatening a legal challenge of the government’s decision to close churches and impose criminal sanctions for non-compliance, representatives of the church leaders were able to bring their concerns to a number of senior civil servants within Downing Street. They were also engaged in several round table discussions with government ministers and senior civil servants for weeks.
On the final day of the time limit for an application for judicial review (23 June), the government announced that churches would be allowed to re-open from 4 July. However, nothing to this point had changed in law – neither the new guidance nor updated regulations had been published and the leaders reluctantly commenced legal action.
The guidance was eventually published on 29 June, followed by new regulations on Friday 3 July. A letter received last week from the government’s lawyers confirms that the government has now addressed the church leaders’ concerns.
“Accordingly, with effect from 4 July 2020 there is no legal restriction in respect of the opening of places of worship, including churches.”
The letter states:
- The challenge to the regulations is now academic given they have been revoked by the No 2 Regulations and there is no legal restriction on opening places of worship.
- The challenge to the phased approach in the strategy and the alleged failure to give assurances in relation to prioritising the re-opening of churches simply falls away because the government has already relaxed the restrictions on churches and permitted them to re-open for a variety of purposes.
- The main thrust of the claim, which relates to the ‘lockdown’ of churches, no longer reflects the factual position.
Prior to the issuing of the new guidance and regulations, all churches were placed in the intolerable position of facing criminal sanctions for any provision of in-person Christian worship or ministry. The government has now revoked the previous regulations in force.
The guidance from the government for the opening of places of worship is carefully worded in terms of advice rather than legally enforceable regulations. The guidance advises that risk assessments are undertaken by churches and contains advice on social distancing and hygiene measures around church activities. This approach – of clear, strong advice – would have been more appropriate throughout the crisis, recognising both the real threat to public health and the independence of the Church.
The group of church leaders first suggested that legal action might be necessary in their pre-action letter of 29 May, and provided the government with an expert report by an eminent environmental microbiologist, Dr Ian Blenkharn, which described the government ban on church services as ‘bizarre’, ‘contradictory’, ‘perverse’ and ‘unreasonable’.
The legal claim argued that the compulsory lockdown of all churches breached the first clause of Magna Carta, where King John “granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable”. It also breached article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights which secures freedom of religion.
Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, one of the 25 claimants, said:
“The government should never have criminalised Christian worship and ministry. Churches were put in the extraordinary position of being allowed to run food banks whilst facing the risk of criminal sanctions for offering in-person prayer ministry. We are pleased that as a result of our discussions and legal action the government has backed down, issuing advice to churches rather than legally enforceable regulations.
“The government has clearly listened to our legal arguments, as well as arguments made in person and in round-table meetings and has seen the significance of the points we made.
“Blanket bans with the threat of criminal sanction should never have been placed on churches in such a unilateral manner. Church is vital for society and should never have been regarded as less ‘essential’ than DIY stores or other businesses.
“The government’s new regulations and guidance shows the significance of the legal action that we took. We continue to stand by this point in law that the government should not interfere with church regulation in such a draconian manner.
“Churches should continue to act responsibly to protect their members from infection.”
The 25 claimants are now considering whether to withdraw their claim in the light of the government’s climbdown or to pursue the legal action to affirm the centuries-old principle that the church should be free from disproportionate state interference.