A church group from Nottingham has been issued a £10,000 fine for congregating in a church car park. Nottinghamshire Police said the 'Church on the Streets' service, which involved around 30 people, violated lockdown restrictions.
Officers said that when they arrived at the scene at around 12:15pm on Saturday, they discovered tents, food and a sound system.
"Over the last week in particular, we have absolutely clarified these events are not allowed," Insp James Walker said in a statement, before noting that "whilst the rules state you can attend places of worship, this car park is evidently not a place of worship."
He added: "Despite the warnings given over the last week in particular, this event continued to go ahead and that is why we have implemented our last resort of enforcement."
The church's pastor, Chez Dyer, confirmed that she would be contesting the fine. Weir also noted that congregants stayed in their cars and that the food, tents and sound system were all being used for the service.
"We've looked at the guidelines and they are very vague," she told the BBC. "I'm really disappointed. I'm going to challenge it because I don't believe I've done anything wrong."
Weir said that she had been in contact with the police on a previous occasion and was advised against using a different car park. She added that she did not know the pub car park was also off-limits.
In comments to Nottinghamshire Live, Nicola O'Connor, who runs the Church on the Streets scheme, insisted that their gathering was in accordance with government guidelines.
She said: "We are Church on the Streets - we feed the homeless and we do food banks.
"I've printed all the legislation off the Government's website but the police have still come to remove us from the car park.
"Initially the police didn't know if it was right or wrong and they told us we could carry on with it, because the guidance online wasn't very clear and it said places of worship can take place.
"But they're saying this isn't a place of worship, but we're Church on the Streets and we don't have an official place of worship."
Under the current government restrictions, people are permitted to gather for worship in Covid-secure conditions.
Speaking to Premier, the Evangelical Alliance's head of public policy, Danny Webster, said that he was concerned about police choosing to define a 'place of worship' by its location or appearance.
"There were some worrying comments from the police. They said that this obviously wasn't a place of worship. Now, actually, the guidelines from the government are quite clear that a place of worship doesn't have to look like a place of worship," Webster explained. "Of course, it includes churches, and synagogues and mosques, but it also includes anywhere that is used as a place of worship by a congregation."
"So it could include schools or theatres or anywhere that's permitted to be open. And that could include private outdoor space."
Webster warned that churches need to "behave responsibly and be careful" in adhering to social distancing guidelines but that "just because they are meeting outdoors doesn't mean that what they were doing was wrong".
"I'm keen to find out more about the specific facts of this case, because the government have protected the rights of churches and other religious bodies to continue to meet," he added. "So it may be that the police have overstepped, but actually we need to know a bit more information about this case, because it may be that the church group were doing other things that justified the police action."
Webster said that churches "shouldn't be looking for a row with the police", while the authorities "should be seeking to engage constructively and ensuring that churches are aware of what their responsibilities are".
He added that churches also "need to make sure that the police are aware that they're not overstepping the rules".
"We've seen that during the lockdown in different areas," he said, "where police have got a bit carried away and have been overeager and how they've policed some of the regulations".
"So it may be that actually there needs to be a bit of pushback towards the police to ensure that they know the judges can meet in all sorts of different settings and it doesn't have to look like a church."