Church leaders pursue judicial review over ‘unlawful’ government church closures

16 November 2020

122 church leaders from England and Wales have launched an urgent legal challenge of the English and Welsh government’s actions in unilaterally stopping church worship services.

Led by Pastor Ade Omooba MBE and with the support of the Christian Legal Centre, the group’s challenge formally began on Friday as papers were submitted asking a judge to urgently review the lawfulness of the bans.

The independence of the Church to govern its own affairs is guaranteed in the constitution and religious freedom is protected throughout human rights law. Civil governments should not simply be able to declare that churches are shut without providing any real evidence that it absolutely necessary to close them. When church buildings are allowed to be used for secular purposes, but not for religious ones, this is clearly not the case.

Some churches may willingly stop their services. The crucial point is that it’s their decision to make.

Jonathan Hough QC, a leading barrister in the area of public law, is lined up to argue this critical case which we hope will be heard in the coming week.

Ban is ‘manifestly unreasonable’

The leaders seek permission for judicial review on the grounds that government restrictions on public worship breach Article 9 rights, including the freedom of Christians to manifest their religion or beliefs in communal worship, teaching, practice and observance.

The claim states that the government failed to discharge their public law duty of enquiry, especially by failing to ascertain the extent to which leaving open places of worship would risk contributing to the spread of Covid 19.

Furthermore, the claim states that the government’s regulations were made outside the legislative power conferred by the Public Health 1984 Act, an important principle long recognised by English law and the constitution.

The claim also argues that the state has unreasonably privileged the use of religious premises for secular purposes whilst prohibiting their use for religious purposes which are their raison d’être. This shows that this ban on collective worship is manifestly unreasonable.

It outlines the position of the leaders on the issue saying that:

“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 MBE, who is leading the church leaders’ 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.

“We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state.”

Government pressured to U-turn

The legal action follows new restrictions, which came into force in England on 5 November, which state that “places of worship will be closed” with exceptions for funerals, broadcast acts of worship, individual prayer, essential voluntary public services, formal childcare, and some other exempted activities.

These restrictions have once again made it a criminal offence for Christians to gather for worship or prayer, or to go to church for worship on a Sunday.

During the Welsh ‘firebreak’ one church worship service was even shut down by police who stated that the service was ‘illegal’.

‘We don’t have good data’

Ahead of the restrictions, over 1500 church leaders signed an open letter urging the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, not to close churches describing the decision to do so as ‘baffling.’

Pressure on the government increased last week as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and interfaith leaders intervened and urged the government to U-turn on the move.

Former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, also raised serious concerns over the government’s policy in parliament last week, stating: “My concern is the government today 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. It has unintended consequences.”

When asked last week how the government had justified closing places of worship, chief scientific advisors, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, said: “We haven’t got good evidence”“this is not a very exact science at all” and “we don’t have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”

In Germany, Angela Merkel refused to close churches as part of their current lockdown as it raised serious ‘constitutional issues’, and earlier this year a French high court branded government church closures as unlawful and overturned the ban.

Despite the pressure on both governments, no U-turn from Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forthcoming, and the Welsh Assembly has refused to provide any reassurances that places of worship will not be closed again in the near future.

‘Church ministry is vital’

Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, 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.

“Churches provide many essential services to their members, local communities, and the nation as a whole. But we can’t be relegated to a social service. The motivation and key to our service is our love for Jesus Christ and our care for the whole person, body, mind and soul. 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.

“We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state.

“Church is so much more than a place for individual prayer. It is a place for prayer ministry, sacraments, gathered worship, fellowship, and corporate prayer and intercession. The government should not be preventing these vital ministries.”

Rev. David Hathaway, President of Eurovision Mission to Europe, an organization that represents over 50,000 Christians across every denomination in the U.K, said: “The government has failed to recognise the centrality of faith to a Christian’s life. Sunday worship and access to church buildings has been treated like a mere hobby or pastime rather than foundational to national and Christian life.”

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly the Church of England’s Bishop of Rochester, said: “Church leaders recognise the seriousness of this pandemic, and that the government need to take the best scientific advice about the measures that are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, especially to vulnerable groups.

“This task has to be held in tension with the 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 and churches have been assiduous in maintaining safety in buildings and among worshippers.

“There is widespread unease among many church leaders about the lack of evidence and consultation regarding the ban on collective worship.

“Church leaders see collective worship, not as an optional extra, but as vital to the mental and spiritual health of believers, especially for the lonely and vulnerable.”

Dr. Gavin Ashenden, former Honorary Chaplain to the Queen, said: “The context in which unilateral closure of churches and the removal of the right to worship as one’s conscience dictates reflects the history of the last 1,000 years of our nation.

“This period has been punctuated by attempts by the government to control, restrict and prohibit the actions of Christian worshippers. From the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 through to the execution of both Protestant and Catholic dissenters in the 16th century, Christians have fought and died for the right to worship and order their spiritual and civic affairs according to their consciences. 

“Church leaders as their successors have a duty both to ensure we are faithful to their memory and sacrifices and in our generation to be faithful to our God and our consciences. Such fidelity sets us in polite but determined opposition to any government that closes the doors of Churches, prohibiting access to the sacraments and our corporate responsibilities to God and to one another.”

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