Landmark court ruling overturns ban on church services

A Court of Session in Scotland this week ruled that Scottish government Covid pandemic regulations, banning church services, “disproportionately interfered” with the freedom of religion secured in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Peter BraidPeter Braid
Peter Braid

The quite extraordinary Edinburgh court ruling specified by the judge Lord Peter Braid, was in response to a judicial review taken by 27 church leaders of various denominations, including some Church of Scotland, Free Church and Roman Catholic congregations.

Lord Braid, a Supreme Court judge, agreeing that the regulations went further than was lawfully allowed, declared: “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.”

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The court ruling, which will be viewed with keen interest by churches in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, where internal church worship is currently banned, was issued with “immediate effect” so all Scottish churches, chapels and also mosques, synagogues and temples could reopen.

The widely reported ruling came just two days before communal worship was due to resume under the next phase of Scottish government lockdown easing.

Under the Northern Ireland lockdown arrangements from December, opening of churches and other faith locations for worship is not illegal. The Stormont Executive left it to church leaders to voluntarily halt worship in their buildings. Some denominations, including the Free Presbyterian Church, resumed in-house worship earlier this month; the Roman Catholic churches re-opened this weekend, while Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist churches will open up next Thursday (April 1), ahead of the Easter religious period.

In the Scottish ruling, government lawyers argued it was forced to make the changes because of the Covid transmissions.

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But Lord Braid said those who brought the judicial review were entitled to have the regulations declared unlawful. He emphasised, however, 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, All I have decided is that the regulations challenged in this petition went further than they were lawfully able to do, in the circumstances which existed when they were made,” he said in his judgement.

Rev Dr William Philip, of Tron church in Glasgow, said: “However well intentioned, criminalising corporate worship has been both damaging and dangerous for Scotland, and must never happen again.”

Canon Tom White, parish priest of St Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church, Glasgow, said: “I’m overjoyed 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.”

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* A Co Cavan Roman Catholic priest has been fined 500 euros by the Gardai for celebrating mass in his local church. Father P. J. Hughes, of Mullahoran/Loughduff parish, was reported several times over parishioners gathering for worship in his church. The priest said he did not accept the Irish government’s pandemic restrictions on religious services. Over recent days, some politicians from various parties have joined protests outside the Dail parliament against the worship ban.