Church leaders from several different denominations across Scotland have called on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to reconsider the decision to place a blanket ban on in-person worship.
In an open letter to Sturgeon, the leaders said they "strongly disagree with the decision to prevent the gathering of the Church at this time, which we believe is profoundly unhelpful and may be unlawful".
The group went on to cite Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights which they say "prohibits governments from interfering with religious practice unless demonstrated as essential for public health because church services were proven a significant source of spread of disease".
They added that they "know of no evidence of any tangible contribution to community transmission through churches in Scotland" and, further, that since churches re-opened in July they "have demonstrated that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from Covid transmission".
"It is for such reasons that legal challenges in other jurisdictions have overturned prohibitions of the freedom to gather for worship," they added.
Under the latest guidelines, churches are only permitted to open to conduct funerals, weddings and civil partnerships, with a maximum attendance limit of 20 people allowed to attend a funeral service.
Pastor John-William Noble, who leads Grave Baptist Church in Aberdeen, told Premier: "There's a big concern about the precedent that the sets...there's a totalitarian nature about something being put into law. There is certainly an argument as to why it's taking place because of the threat of Covid, but obviously we are concerned that this may be setting a pattern in future situations where there could be another issue that comes up, and again the Government are saying 'well, the church has to shut down or the church has to do this'. Biblically, I would strongly argue that the Government does not have the biblical mandate to be telling churches when she can and cannot worship."
In their letter, the church leaders, including Rev Dr William Philip of The Tron Church, Glasgow, and Rev Paul Rees of Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, said they were perplexed by the Scottish government's view on the importance of worship at this time.
Rev William Philip told Premier: "The truth is, death is not just a chance for some of us, it's a certainty for all of us. And it's the church of Jesus Christ that has the only message in the face of the fear of death and that message must be heard and churches must be open. We have a greater answer than any of the answers that public health can bring, very necessary as they are."
The letter went on to say: "Above all we are dismayed because there seems to be a failure in the Scottish Government to understand that Christian worship is an essential public service, and especially vital to our nation in a time of crisis."
They urged the Scottish government "not to disadvantage the people of Scotland by failing to recognise both the moral and legal arguments for the priority of public worship".
"As Christian leaders we are witnesses to much tragedy in our communities through the dehumanising effects of the protracted disruption to life brought by the responses to Covid-19," they added. "Like the NHS, we too have been engaged in a host of ways seeking to bring help and healing to many, and we must not be prevented from continuing to do so. For we also know that, especially in the face of the presence of disease and death, the greatest light of hope for all comes from a higher place than any earthly institution: not health services, however skilled, or Governments, however wise, but from the Divine hope that is in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"We urge you not to be the Government which denies our nation the collective prayer of the churches of our land in days when it is most greatly needed."
The leaders concluded by urging the government to allow churches "to worship safely, as part of the essential fabric of the nation".
Ian Blackford MP, leader of the SNP MPs in Westminster, told Tim farron MP in Premier's A Mucky Business podcast: "I kind of take the view that if we have to err on the side of caution for now, and that's the way I would put it to you, then we should do that because it's about protecting other people. it's not about us, it's about protecting other people and the risks that are there."
A Scottish Government spokeswoman defended their decisions to prohibit in-person worship: “We know how tough this decision will be for many people.
“However we must take action across society to stop the virus spreading further, so we can protect public health and save lives.
“This virus can spread anywhere that there is close human contact – without exception.
“Test and Protect tells us where people were in their 48-hour infectious period.
"So we know that on one day last week the seven-day number for places of worship was 120 and data from yesterday (Monday) shows the seven-day number for places of worship is 38, underlining the essential decision to require places of worship to close for public health reasons.”
A spokesperson for the Church of Scotland said they “We accepted the latest restrictions on worship and that this "is one way that we can contribute to suppressing the virus".
“At the same time we recognise that communal worship is an essential element of our faith," they added. “We will work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that reopening churches will happen as soon as it can be done safely."