A group of UK church leaders are launching a legal challenge against the government over its decision to prevent worshippers from gathering in churches during the Covid-19 lockdown.
While the group welcomes the government's latest announcement that churches will be allowed to reopen from July 4, they are insistent that the government needs to be brought to account over the lengthy closure.
One of the signatories, pastor John Quintanilla of Hebron Christian Faith Church said: “For the first time in centuries, the government made it a criminal offence to go to church on a Sunday. We cannot let this go unchallenged. We need assurances this will not happen again."
The group is led by Christian Concern co-founder Rev Ade Omooba MBE and includes the President of Eurovision Mission to Europe Dr David Hathaway, former Chaplain to the Queen Dr Gavin Ashenden and the President of Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.
The group initially threatened legal action at the end of May, providing the government with a report from environmental microbiologist Dr Ian Blenkharn, who described the government's ban on church services as "bizarre", "contradictory", "perverse" and "unreasonable".
The report added: "In light of the current knowledge of COVID-19 coronavirus infection, and the general principles of infection prevention and control, I can identify no scientifically valid barriers to reopening of churches for services."
The group now argues that the government should have issued "advice" to churches on infection control and refrained from a direct order to close “backed by a threat of a criminal sanction".
They will further argue that the compulsory lockdown of all churches violated the first clause of Magna Carta, where King John “granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable”. They also claim that the measures breached article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights which protects freedom of religion.
The group also wants to seek assurances from the government that no fines or penalties will be issued against church ministers who disobeyed the lockdown.
Mr Justice Swift, a high court judge, has ordered government lawyers to file a response by 15 July, noting that the case “raises significant matters”.
Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, said: “The Government decided unilaterally to treat Churches as non-essential despite the clear importance of gathered worship to Christians. Blanket bans were imposed on churches while businesses were trusted to make their own decisions. Even in the relaxation of measures announced this week, pub and restaurant owners seem to be more trusted than church leaders. This cannot be right and leaves us with no choice but to take legal action.
“The government should allow churches to make their own decisions about what kind of ministry to host in their buildings, rather than continuing to impose highly restrictive constraints.
“We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state. The government should urgently rescind its restrictions on church ministry.”
Rev Melvin Tinker, Vicar of St John Newland, Hull, International Speaker and Author, added: “The church by definition is a ‘gathering’ thus if such gatherings are not allowed it follows churches are ceasing to exist. For Christians, ‘religion’ is not a private affair, it has a social dimension which is basic. To take this away by legislation is to effectively dismantle the exercising of the Christian religion. Given the unquestionable Christian basis for many of the liberties we enjoy in the West – including democracy itself – the prohibition of churches signifies a massive departure from our heritage and promotes the secularisation process which marginalises the religion aspect of society.”
Matthew Ashimolowo, the Senior Pastor of Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) – an Independent Charismatic Pentecostal Church with over 25 branches in the United Kingdom representing over 6000 people – said: “There is a total lack of understanding on the part of the government with regards to how our churches function. The ongoing approach to the church is not helping our communities who see the church not just as a place to go for personal prayers, but where their whole life revolves around.
“The church is led by responsible people who are well able to put all the necessary preventive measures in place to avoid the spread of the virus like all other organisations.
“We have already invested a lot in fogging machines, sanitisation tunnels and temperature detectors.
“We should not have been relegated to the back of the queue for reopening.”