Church leaders launch legal challenge against English and Welsh public worship bans

14 November 2020, 12:01 | Updated: 14 November 2020, 12:20

Church leaders have launched a legal challenge against England's public worship ban
Church leaders have launched a legal challenge against England's public worship ban. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

More than 100 church leaders have launched a legal challenge against the English and Welsh governments for banning public worship during their second lockdowns.

The group is seeking a judicial review of the decision made by Boris Johnson and ministers to ban people from worshipping together in England.

Legal action is also being launched against First Minister Mark Drakeford's government who imposed a similar ban during Wales' 17-day firebreak which ended earlier this month.

They claim the stringent measures breach Article 9 of the Human Rights Act which gives people the right to freely express their religious beliefs.

The 100-strong church leaders also suggest the government did not determine how much of an impact allowing people to worship together would have on the transmission of coronavirus.

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Pastor Ade Omooba, who is spearheading the legal action, said: "We have been left with no alternative but to pursue a judicial review on this crucial issue and at this significant moment for the freedom to worship in church in this country.

"We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state."

It comes after measures preventing people from gathering for public worship were introduced on 5 November as part of the second England-wide lockdown.

However, churches can still hold funerals, broadcast acts of worship and facilitate individual prayer.

Ahead of November's lockdown, over 1,500 church leaders signed an open letter urging the prime minister not to close churches for public worship.

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Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, a former bishop of Rochester, said: "Church leaders recognise the seriousness of this pandemic, and that the government need to take the best scientific advice about the measures that are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, especially to vulnerable groups.

"This task has to be held in tension with the ancient liberties of the church which have been won through hard struggle over the course of our history.

"These liberties include freedom of belief, expression and worship.

"The principle of the freedom of worship needs to be maintained and churches have been assiduous in maintaining safety in buildings and among worshippers.

"There is widespread unease among many church leaders about the lack of evidence and consultation regarding the ban on collective worship.

"Church leaders see collective worship, not as an optional extra, but as vital to the mental and spiritual health of believers, especially for the lonely and vulnerable."

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Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former honorary chaplain to The Queen, added: "The context in which unilateral closure of churches and the removal of the right to worship as one's conscience dictates reflects the history of the last 1,000 years of our nation.

"This period has been punctuated by attempts by the government to control, restrict and prohibit the actions of Christian worshippers.

"From the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 through to the execution of both Protestant and Catholic dissenters in the 16th century, Christians have fought and died for the right to worship and order their spiritual and civic affairs according to their consciences."

A government spokeswoman said: "The government doesn't take imposing further restrictions lightly but this action is vital in tackling the spread of the virus.

"Places of worship bring huge solace and comfort to people, especially during this challenging time.

"That is why they remain open during this period of new restrictions for private prayer and other vital functions like funerals.

"We continue to work closely with senior faith leaders and the places of worship taskforce, as we have throughout the pandemic."

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