Criminal sanctions for gathered worship

6 November 2020

Parliament has now approved the Health Protections (Coronavirus) (Regulations) which came into force at midnight on the morning of 5 November.

These regulations carry the force of law and criminalise gathering for worship of prayer for four weeks until they automatically expire on 2 December.

Unlawful to hold church services

We are now in the extraordinary and shocking position that it is unlawful to hold normal church services for the next four Sundays in England.

There are some allowances for holding funerals, and for broadcasting an act of worship over the internet or to the media. Churches are also allowed to provide “essential voluntary services” such as food banks or other support for homeless or vulnerable people. Church buildings are allowed to open for individual private prayer. Meeting to pray with another person, however, could face criminal sanctions.

An exception has also been made for outdoor services to commemorate Remembrance Sunday.

Serious penalties for public Christian worship

Any church which decides to meet in contravention of these laws faces a potential £10,000 fine for breaching the regulations. Students organising parties in contravention of lockdown restrictions have faced £10,000 fines each for organising such events.

In addition, individuals who breach the regulations face a possible fixed penalty of £100, which is raised to £200 if not paid within 14 days.

Further to this, a church which breaches the regulations can expect inquiries from the Charity Commission about whether the trustees approved a breach of law. Insurance companies may also claim a breach of contract. There may also be inquiries from any landlord involved.

Regulations to be challenged in court

Christian Concern is supporting a group of over 100 church leaders who will apply for permission for a judicial review of the regulations outlawing Christian worship.  We believe that the regulations themselves are unlawful and may well be overturned in court. There is a serious breach of freedom of religion and of the independence of church and state involved. Do contact us if you are a church leader and you would like to support this judicial review.

If police step in to stop a church service in the next four weeks, and a prosecution follows, then the regulations are likely to be challenged in court that way too.

If you require any legal advice about the regulations, then do contact the Christian Legal Centre and we will do our best to help.

Churches remain open in other countries

A month-long lockdown in Germany does not include closing churches because of constitutional concerns. This is because Germany’s top court ruled that banning religious services represents a major infringement on the right to religious freedom.

In France too, a court ruled that the government could not issue a blanket ban on meeting at places of worship. Consequently, churches remain open.

In the UK, the courts have yet to rule on blanket closure of places of worship, but we are optimistic that the courts here will also overturn this measure.

Church leaders say: “Let my people worship!”

An open letter to the Prime Minister objecting to the closure of churches was signed by 1,500 church leaders in just a few hours. The letter argues that Christian worship is an “essential public service.” It states:

“It is essential for the mental and spiritual health of millions of Christians. It is essential for providing the nation with the hope that Jesus Christ offers. And it is essential for the glory of God. For those reasons governments of western democracies, led by the example of Great Britain, have consistently avoided interfering with the right of the church to meet.”

An open letter to the Prime Minister from the Archbishops and other faith leaders also argues that public worship is essential.

Public worship is safe

The letter from the faith leaders states that they believe that the government and Public Health England accept that there is no scientific rationale for the closure of places of worship.

Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England admitted when questioned by MPs that he didn’t have any good data to support the decision to close churches.

The government is therefore not able to offer any good reason for taking the extreme measure of criminalising gathering to worship or pray in a Covid-secure manner.

Prayer needed

The government’s disrespect for the fundamental importance of Christian worship has shocked the nation. It has stirred many Christian leaders into action and prayer. We need to pray for God to do what only he can do. We need God’s mercy on our nation. The government should be commanded to “Let my people worship!” It should also be told that we as a nation need to repent of the many ways in which we have turned away from God. This latest forced closure of churches being only the most recent example.

Please also pray for the anticipated judicial review of the government’s decision to close churches. We would like this to succeed so that the government realises that it was wrong to close churches and decides not to do so again.

Find out more about Church lockdown
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