122 church leaders have withdrawn their pursuit of a judicial review after restrictions on public worship were lifted in England and Wales following sustained political, legal and media pressure.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, a permission hearing for judicial review over the unprecedented decisions to close churches by the English and Welsh governments was due this week at Cardiff Civil Justice Centre.
The leaders, from different denominations and traditions within the Christian church in England and Wales, had launched the claim for judicial review in response to government lockdowns in October and November 2020.
Disturbing stories broke in the media following the implementation of the regulations, including a legal online church service wrongly being shut down by police and the pastor of the church being prosecuted on his doorstep.
The Welsh ‘firebreak’ lockdown, implemented in October 2020, also saw police shutting down a church service saying it was ‘illegal’. Mourners at a funeral service were also prevented from saying the Lord’s Prayer together, which led to national outrage.
However, the New Year regulations outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Welsh Assembly respectively, saw both governments U-turn on their policy of closing churches during lockdown.
Despite this, there have been no reassurances from either government that they will not close churches in the future. The church leaders vow that they will be ready to pursue legal action again should they do so.
Now attention turns to Scotland, where the SNP has decided to close churches during the current lockdown. Church leaders from across Scotland are now considering whether to pursue legal action.
Must never happen again
Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, who led the church leaders’ legal challenge, said: “English and Welsh government bans on worshipping together were decided without sufficient and robust warning, proper consultation, and without even a mention at press conferences prior to our intervention.
“Since then, significant pressure has ensured the government’s U-turn and recognition that you cannot treat churches, and the crucial material, emotional and spiritual services they provide to their communities, as non-essential.
“Throughout the crisis, churches have demonstrated their love and leadership both by caring for the practical needs of their neighbours and by worshiping together safely, when possible.
“The language and the actions of the English and Welsh governments has now significantly shifted. We welcome this and have withdrawn our legal claim accordingly. Now we call on both governments to ensure consistency of appropriate dialogue and to uphold and protect the important and long held constitutional position of the independence of church and civil government.
“If places of worship close again in England and Wales, we will face no alternative but to pursue legal action again.”
Rev. Matthew Roberts, Minister of Trinity Church York, said: “As the pandemic and all its tragic effects continue, it has never been more important that people from across the country should gather safely to worship God. We are very grateful to the government for recognising this and preserving Christian worship through the current lockdown, and we see constantly the benefit of regular and safe worship in people’s lives.”
Criminalised public worship
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the leaders had sought 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 stated 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 stated 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 argued that the state had unreasonably privileged the use of religious premises for secular purposes whilst prohibiting their use for religious purposes which are their raison d’être. This demonstrated that this ban on collective worship is manifestly unreasonable.
It outlined 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.”
Government pressured to U-turn
The legal action followed new restrictions, which came into force in England on 5 November 2020, stating 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 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.
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.’
‘We don’t have good data’
Former Prime Minister, Theresa May, also raised serious concerns over the government’s policy in parliament in November 2020, 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 how the government had justified closing places of worship, chief scientific advisors, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, said in November 2020: “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. Recently the United States Supreme Court allowed churches to remain open in New York state.
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