Press Release

‘Don’t close us again’ – Christian leaders seek urgent guarantees from Welsh government ahead of ‘likely’ New Year firebreak

30 October 2020         Issued by: Christian Concern

A group of Welsh and English church leaders has written to the Welsh Assembly seeking guarantees that churches will not be forced to close again.

The Welsh government has responded this week to the threat of legal action by the church leaders by announcing that churches will re-open at the end of the national ‘firebreak’ lockdown on November 9.

However, Welsh ministers have already suggested in the media that there is likely to be another national lockdown in January and/or February, which will involve places of worship closing.

In response, the church leaders, who work in some of the most deprived areas of Wales, have today (29 October) written to the Welsh Assembly again.

The leaders state in the letter that their concerns would be: “significantly alleviated by a reassurance from the Ministers that any future legislation would respect the principle of church independence, and in particular, would not impose a legally binding ban on church services. If there is a prohibition on our clients’ freedom to worship following the expiration of the index regulations, our clients reserve their position concerning future judicial review proceedings.”

The letter ends reiterating that the church leaders are ‘open to dialogue’ and request a meeting with the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakerford, within the next week to discuss the issue.

Rev. Clyde Thomas, leader of Victory Church in Cwbran, said: “We welcome the news that the Welsh Assembly will not be extending the current ban on churches during this firebreak. However, we are deeply concerned by the likelihood of a second firebreak in January and need dialogue and reassurances.

“The ‘likely’ firebreak in the New Year would come at a time when the highly vulnerable people we serve in our community need us most.

“The church must have the freedom to worship and to be open so that we can support our communities physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: A forced closure of churches by the secular government violates centuries of constitutional tradition. The church serves at the heart of our public life and as well as seeking to meet the physical needs of many it exists to bring the Good News and hope of Jesus Christ in the middle of a national crisis.

“We call on the First Minister of Wales to meet with these church leaders to discuss how the long held constitutional principle of the independence of the church and its roll within society will be upheld in Wales moving forward.”

Extreme interference

On Friday 23 October, supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the church leaders had sent a pre-action letter to the Welsh Assembly seeking an urgent review of ‘firebreak’ lockdown measures that banned churches in Wales from opening for three Sundays.

The pre-action letter argued that blanket restrictions imposed on Welsh churches, which began on Friday 23 October, would be both unlawful and unnecessary.

The letter stated that: ‘The forced closure of churches by the state is an extreme interference with Article 9 rights. Such a far-reaching and large-scale intervention may only be justified by the most compelling scientific evidence of a resulting benefit to public health.’

The leaders acknowledged the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, but argued that the imposition of appropriate anti-pandemic measures should be a matter for church rather than secular authorities.

The group stated that they are genuinely open to a constructive dialogue with the Welsh Assembly, but warned that if matters were not addressed urgently, they would seek a judicial review of the ban.

Leaders of English churches have also signed the letter, concerned that the forced closure of churches in Wales would set a precedent that England would follow.

On 19 October, Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced, without any parliamentary debate or scrutiny, that Wales would enter a two-week ‘firebreak’ Covid lockdown.

He said the measures were needed to relieve pressure on the health service and slow the spread of the virus in the country.

As part of the measures, he announced church doors will close for public worship other than for funerals or wedding ceremonies for three Sundays, although wedding receptions will not be allowed.

The measures follow a similar blanket ban on church services from the UK government during the first wave of the pandemic, which saw a series of claims brought to the High Court against the government.

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