Scottish Ministers ‘crossed line’ by criminalising public worship court told11 March 2021 Issued by: Christian Concern
A judge has heard on the first day of a full judicial review hearing that Scottish Ministers ‘crossed a line’ when they made the decision to criminalise public worship and give police maximum powers to enforce it.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, 27 Scottish church leaders, from a range of Christian denominations, have brought the action stating that the closures are unlawful and continue to breach Human Rights law and the Scottish constitutional law.
Janys Scott QC, representing the church leaders who have brought the claim, argued in her submissions that ‘irreparable damage’ had been done to the church leaders and congregations, which is growing in seriousness each day the regulations are in place.
Scott QC described it as a ‘rather alarming proposition’ that: ‘Were the church to assemble, it could be required to disperse. Were any members of a congregation to resist, they could potentially be forcibly removed to their homes.’
She described the powers given to the police to enforce these measures as a ‘maximalist approach’ which has violated their human rights and trespassed on the clear separation of powers between the church and state in the Scottish constitution.
The line between civil and spiritual has been crossed, she argued, and the state has exceeded its constitutional authority.
She argued that this interference is unlawful, and that the Scottish Ministers lack the constitutional power to make them cease to worship.
The freedom of the church to manage its own affairs, as explicitly outlined in Scotland’s constitutional law, she argued means that the:
‘Coronavirus Act 2020 cannot authorise regulations which relate to matters within the exclusive jurisdiction of the church, and the Local Levels Regulations and the Closure Regulations are unlawful, in so far as they purport to require the closure of places of worship. By completely preventing the church carrying out essential spiritual and ecclesiastical functions in the form of assembly, communion, baptism and congregational ministry, they trespass into matters that are in law, the sole province of the church.’
Making the argument that Covid-19 affects all parts of the United Kingdom, Mrs Scott QC pinpointed that no other part of the United Kingdom ‘currently requires places of worship to close. No other part of the United Kingdom criminalises the opening of a place of worship for the purpose of worship, or the attendance at the place of worship for the purpose of worshipping together with
Furthermore, she cited a number of successful international cases from the past year which have upheld the right to communal worship, even in the middle of a pandemic.
She argued that there is a growing international jurisprudence that banning public worship is disproportionate, unlawful and represents clear government overreach.
Despite Nicola Sturgeon announcing this week that gathered worship would be allowed with restrictions from March 26, Mrs Scott QC argued that there have been no assurances or guarantees that similar restrictions will not be enacted in the future.
As a result, in closing her submissions, she called on the court to provide a ‘principle’ judgment in the case. She stated that especially during times of crisis there is a duty to hold governments to their constitutions.
She concluded that if a church cannot meet in assembly, it ceases to exist, and called on the court to provide immediate relief.
The church leaders seek a declarator that the closure of churches in Scotland are unlawful, that church closure regulations must be reversed, and that a person may lawfully leave their home to attend a place of worship without fear of prosecution.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “The church leaders’ case raises a paramount constitutional issue of the church liberties and independence from the state. Never before this pandemic did secular authorities assume the power to ban or permit church services and sacraments. This constitutional principle must be protected for the benefit of present and future generations.
“Until this point the Scottish Ministers have had no answers to justify banning church worship. There has been no understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The Scottish Ministers regulations have placed the church in the same category as a social service and sees it as no different from a betting shop.
“This blanket ban must be justified, as currently the reasons are vague, speculative and disproportionate. We look forward to hearing the Scottish government’s submissions tomorrow.”