Churches are opening their doors again in Ireland on Monday after nearly a year of a gathered worship being strictly prohibited.
Church buildings will be allowed to have services again from 10th May but Christian leaders have signed an open letter addressed to the Irish Prime Minister, Micheál Martin TD, demanding him never to ban church worship in Ireland again.
They ask that he affirms the right to freedom of religion (enshrined in the Constitution and protected in international human rights law), recognises that churches are an essential part of society and commits the Irish government never again to impose another blanket ban on public worship.
Despite commercial public venues being allowed to open with safety measures in place, worship in church was strictly prohibited and attending a service carried the threat of criminal penalties.
The open letter, backed by human rights group ADF International, reads:
"Your government has insisted that a blanket ban on public worship is necessary. Of course, we as people of faith recognise the importance of protecting the vulnerable from sickness. However, churches were treated unfairly in this decision in comparison to commercial shops. Dry-cleaners, bicycle shops and supermarkets have all been allowed to open with safety measures in place. Furthermore, all other western European countries permitted public religious worship to resume, long before the Irish government considered it. In Scotland, the same blanket ban was struck down by the court as unlawful."
Lorcán Price, Irish barrister and legal counsel for ADF International said: "There is no clear reason as to why the Irish government prevented places of worship from opening for so long. Other European countries allowed religious worship to continue with safety precautions which protect both the public at religious services and the wider community."
A legal challenge to the blanket worship ban is still pending before courts despite the 10th May opening date.
Declan Ganley, who filed a legal challenge after seeing the impact on all faith communities, is redoubling his efforts to ensure that the blanket ban on worship will never be imposed again and to hold the Government to account.
The businessman’s claim for a judicial review mirrors that in Scotland. In March, 28 faith leaders successfully had the Scottish government’s blanket ban on worship ruled unlawful.
Ganley is hopeful for a similar decision from the Irish court: "There’s no clear logic as to why an airy, open church, with plenty of space, should be considered somehow more dangerous than a bicycle shop. Are people of faith really more contagious than others?"
He continued: "While I am very thankful that church doors will once again open in Ireland, this case remains important. Now more than ever, we need a clear decision from the court as to whether this draconian ban was ever justified in the first place. And it is also a critical moment for the future of faith in Ireland. The courts now have the opportunity to ensure that the community is never again deprived access to a place to meet with God and minister to the suffering at a time of need."