The impact of lockdowns on religious freedoms

12 January 2021

Following the government’s restrictive lockdown measures to try to combat the spread of Covid-19, the Joint Committee on Human Rights launched a call for evidence on the impacts of local and national lockdowns.

The committee said it was seeking views on the impact that lockdown has on specific freedoms, including:

“The impact of lockdown on the freedom of religion and believe, and in particular on collective worship. Have interferences with the freedom of religion and belief been proportionate?”

Christian Concern submitted a response, which you can read in full.

The response raises concerns that previous lockdowns in both England and Wales were not proportionate:

“We argue that they violate the UK’s obligations under the ECHR by imposing criminal sanctions on churches, their congregations, and other people of faith. This interference particularly affects rights to manifest their beliefs in communal worship, teaching, practice, and observance.”

It also makes mention of several churches that were raided by the police during lockdown, including in Cardiff, Milton Keynes, North London and most recently in Brighton. In the case of New Hope Community Church, Cardiff, the police attended in force, dressed in riot gear and equipped with tasers.

The lockdowns have also affected the rights of street preachers to peacefully preach in the street, despite obeying social distancing regulations.The effects on individuals, families and congregations has also been felt by churches. The submission notes that,

“The rapidly changing rules, many enforceable with draconian and ever-increasing levels of fines, has left leaders focused on avoiding legal sanctions. This has necessarily drawn attention away from the primary concern viz, the care of congregations. This is especially sad at a time when loneliness and isolation have exacerbated mental health issues among certain sectors of society.”

The submission concludes that benefit of functioning churches is invaluable not only to believers around the country whose lives are anchored by their faith, but also to vulnerable individuals who rely on the help and support of the church communities around them.

While the government has addressed some of these issues by allowing places of worship to remain open during this third national lockdown in England, and churches in both Northern Ireland and Wales have been allowed to remain open, there remain concerns about the chilling effect that the heavy-handed treatment of churches has had on freedom of religion:

“The manner in which freedom of worship and religious exercise have been limited suggests constitutional overreach and fails to properly balance the rights and needs of churches and believers with the health and safety of others. The wholesale manner in which churches were closed during the first lockdown was not a narrowly tailor means of achieving public health. It seems that no balance of interests was undertaken in making the decision to close churches.”

The Christian Legal Centre continues to support the 122 church pastors seeking a judicial review of the government’s decision to criminalise public worship, and a hearing seeking permission is due on 25 January. We are also currently considering whether to take up a legal challenge in Scotland, where churches have been forced to close again.

Find out more about Church lockdown
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