“This shows that this ban on collective worship is manifestly unreasonable,” Christian Concern said. The regulations, Christian Concern objected, “made it a criminal offense for Christians to gather for worship or prayer, or to go to church for worship on a Sunday.”
Members of Parliament approved Nov. 4 a four-week lockdown in England that began Nov. 5, following a surge in coronavirus cases. During the lockdown, places of worship will be allowed to open only for individual prayer, with the exception of funerals, which 30 people may attend. Group prayer or group worship is banned.
In addition to closing houses of worship, the regulations will shutter bars, gyms, and non-essential shops until Dec. 2. Schools will remain open.
The blanket ban has faced challenges from Catholic, Church of England, and Pentecostal Christian leaders as well as from representatives of Orthodox Judaism, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
The legal complaint continues these challenges.
“The English and Welsh governments have now introduced two successive sets of lock down measures which have completely prohibited and criminalized public communal worship, a core aspect of religious life for the claimants and their congregations,” the complaint said. “With these measures, the governments have inflicted a terrible human cost, without rigorous consideration of less onerous restrictions, and as part of a package which leaves places of worship open for secular activities.”
Pastor Ade Omooba, a Pentecostal leader heading the group of 122 objecting Christian leaders, said the present time is a “significant moment” for the freedom to worship in church. He said the group calls on the government to “recognize the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state.”
A government spokesperson defended the restrictions, saying, “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,” said the spokesperson. “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 task force, as we have throughout the pandemic,” the spokesperson said, according to the U.K. newspaper The Independent.
As of Nov. 16, over 52,000 people had died of the novel coronavirus in the entire United Kingdom, the highest number of deaths in Europe. There have been over 1.3 million reported cases of infection. The seven-day average of new cases is at about 25,000 per day, compared to 1,339 per day on September 1.
Restrictions on public activity, including religious gatherings, have been implemented across the world to limit the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent health care resources and personnel from being overwhelmed by patients suffering severe cases. In the initial months of the pandemic, religious gatherings were a particular concern because of early outbreaks at these gatherings which appeared to spread the virus very quickly.
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More recently, many religious leaders have pointed to data indicating that religious services are relatively safe when public health recommendations are followed, including limits on congregation sizes, mandatory physical distancing between different households, the wearing of masks, and handwashing.
Legal challenges have resulted in many places, with religious leaders arguing their venues are no different than similar gatherings or venues that are sometimes treated less strictly by public health orders.
The church leaders also aim to challenge the Welsh Assembly’s three-week “firebreak,” a time of restrictions on gatherings which concluded Nov. 9. During this time, police shut down one worship service on the grounds it was illegal.
Another clergyman backing the complaint, Rev. David Hathaway, President of Eurovision Mission to Europe, said the government has “failed to recognize the centrality of faith to a Christian’s life.”
“Sunday worship and access to church buildings has been treated like a mere hobby or pastime rather than foundational to national and Christian life,” he said.
Dr. Gavin Ashenden, a former Honorary Chaplain to the Queen, cited the long history of government attempts to control, restrict and prohibit Christian worship in England. He mentioned the 12th century assassination of Archbishop of Canterbury St. Thomas Becket, and the treatment of both Catholic and Protestant dissenters.