• Rikki Lambert

Scottish churches' court win to reopen locked-down churches

Places of worship in Scotland can reopen immediately after Covid regulations forcing their closure were deemed unlawful.

A group of 27 church leaders launched a judicial review at the Court of Session arguing the Scottish government acted beyond their emergency powers.

Lord Braid agreed the regulations went further than was lawfully allowed, saying in the judgment:

“For all these reasons I have concluded that the Regulations do constitute a disproportionate interference with the article 9 (European Convention on)[freedom of thought, conscience &religion]right … [and] constitutional rights”

The ruling was issued with "immediate effect" so churches - but also mosques, synagogues and temples - can open now.

The decision comes just two days before communal worship is due to resume under the next phase of lockdown easing.

Lawyers for the Scottish government had argued that it was forced to make the changes as the Kent variant of Covid was more transmissible.

Lord Braid said those who brought the judicial review were entitled to have the regulations declared unlawful, adding:

"It is impossible to measure the effect of those restrictions on those who hold religious beliefs. It goes beyond mere loss of companionship and an inability to attend a lunch club."

However, the judge emphasised that he was not saying that coming together for worship was safe.

"I have not decided that all churches must immediately open or that it is safe for them to do so, or even that no restrictions at all are justified," he said.
"All I have decided is that the regulations which are challenged in this petition went further than they were lawfully able to do, in the circumstances which existed when they were made."

Rev Dr William Philip, senior minister at the Tron Church in Glasgow, welcomed the ruling.

"From the outset we have recognised the serious decisions the Scottish Ministers had to take in response to the pandemic.
"However, its approach to banning and criminalising gathered church worship was clearly an over-reach and disproportionate and if this had gone unchallenged it would have set a very dangerous precedent.
"However well intentioned, criminalising corporate worship has been both damaging and dangerous for Scotland, and must never happen again."

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, hailed the result as a 'big win' resulting from 'brilliant advocacy'.

She said:

"The fundamental principle of freedom has prevailed with a strong dash of good old common sense."

Additional party Canon Tom White's argument that the regulations were disproportionate on constitutional grounds was also found to be the case by Lord Braid.

Canon White, parish priest of St Alphonsus Church in Glasgow, said:

"I'm overjoyed to hear that the court has understood the essential need to protect not only the physical and material health of our society but also its spiritual needs and therefore overturned the disproportionate, unnecessary and unlawful blanket ban on public worship."

On hearing that the restrictions would be lifted immediately, Canon White confirmed he would hold a Covid-safe Mass at St Mary's RC church in the east end of Glasgow on Thursday morning.

Across the Baltic Sea amid a spike of new COVID-19 cases in Poland, Poland's health care and Catholic Church authorities have appealed to all parish priests to strictly observe the limit of attendance and distancing at church services, and especially during next month's Easter holiday.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski and Secretary General of Poland's Episcopate, Bishop Artur Mizinski said in the appeal Wednesday they were driven by concern for the "life and health of all Poles."

"We must not remain indifferent in the face of the rising number of new infections," they said and stressed the need to "strictly observe the rules and sanitary requirements."

They said that was the necessary condition to avoid new restrictions that would be tougher than the current lockdown of hotels, shopping malls, theaters and sports centers.

On Wednesday, the 38-million nation recorded its highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the pandemic, reaching almost 30,000. There were 575 deaths.

Like in shops, only one person per 15 sq. meters (161 sq. feet) can be allowed inside, at a 1.5 meter (5 feet) distance from others, and wearing a mask.

There have been reports that not all churches observe the rule. Photos have been circulated of ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and other officials failing to observe the required distance at a memorial Mass for Kaczynski's late mother in a church in Starachowice, central Poland.

Easter, this year on April 4-5, and the week leading to it, are a time when people daily throng to churches for prayers and Mass.