This Thursday (11 March), the Scottish government will be in court to face a full judicial review hearing over its policy of banning and criminalising gathered church worship during the current lockdown.
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 as they breach Human Rights law and the Scottish constitution. The leaders come from the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, and a number of independent churches.
Represented by Janys Scott QC, the church leaders will argue that the case is about State interference with what is arguably the most precious and sacred of the fundamental freedoms in Scotland – religious freedom. They will also challenge the government’s characterisation of public worship as “non-essential indoor social contact.”
As part of the legal case, the church leaders will 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.
In the claim, the church leaders: “hold that public corporate worship, involving the physical gathering together of Christians… are fundamental and indispensable aspects of their religion,” and argue that “in the absence of the gathered people of God, there is effectively no ‘church’.”
The hearing will feature an expert witness report from microbiologist, Dr Ian Blenkharn, who describes the government’s strategy over church closures as ‘illogical’.
The court will also consider an expert report from Christian theologian, Dr Martin Parsons, who will state that there is a: ‘public theology, which is widely held among Protestant churches in Scotland which has for many centuries emphatically held that the Church should be independent of all outside interference in its worship, teaching and other aspects of church life.’
The Scottish government has so far tried to maintain that its position is justified as a proportionate response to the pandemic, but to date has been unable to answer why places of worship may remain open in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland.
There is also a growing international jurisprudence on the issue, with several successful legal challenges against blanket bans on gathered church worship in Europe, South Africa, Germany and the USA.
If this claim is successful, the government could be ordered to let churches open immediately.
Please pray for success, for the lawyers arguing the case and for the judge hearing it.
Ahead of the hearing, the leader of the Scottish leaders, Rev. Dr Williams Philip, of The Tron church in Glasgow, said: “This is a crucial moment for the freedom of the church in Scotland. For public Christian worship to be prevented is deeply damaging to society in terms of the most important health of all: eternal health. Death is not just a risk for some in a pandemic but a certainty for all, and the Church’s calling is to teach people how to live, and how to die, through proclaiming Jesus Christ, the only hope that dispels all fear, death included.
“The justification for closure is that the state may regulate a host of civil matters that can affect places of worship. Our response is that the regulations clearly trespass from ‘civil’ to ‘spiritual’.”
Rev. Nathan Owens, leader of the Maxwell Church in Kilmaurs, said: “The fact that The European Convention on Human Rights includes freedom of religion as a fundamental right demonstrates that even secular governments recognise the supreme value religious liberty plays in a healthy society.
“The Scottish government has catastrophically undervalued this basic human right and its critical role in fostering a robust, healthy and functioning society. We all want to see an end to COVID-19, but we are extremely concerned about the decision to criminalise public expressions of religion, seeing it as disproportionate and damaging.”
John-William Noble, Pastor at Grace Baptist Church Aberdeen said: “The Scottish Ministers are willing to recognise and permit churches to open their buildings for food banks, as polling stations or vaccination centres, but they have shown a complete disregard for the very definition and purpose of the church. The church is the physical assembling of Christians to worship God, and it is because of our worship and obedience to God that we then seek to love and care for our neighbour as so many churches have sought to do in this time.”
Alasdair Smith, an elder at Knox Church Perth, said: “The Scottish Government has mistakenly assumed it has authority to interfere with the public worship of God. However, the independence of the Church in spiritual matters like worship is constitutionally protected in the same way that Scots Law is or even the Scottish Court system itself. These are fundamental rights in our nation.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “It’s our privilege to stand behind these courageous church leaders who consider opening their churches for gathered worship and serving their communities as integral to their lives in ministry.”
Find out more about Church lockdown