The closure of churches in Scotland has been ruled unconstitutional in the Scottish courts.
Lord Braid ruled that the Scottish Government's closure of churches during the Covid-19 lockdown was unconstitutional and a disproportionate interference of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR) - the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
In the judgment Lord Braid writes: “It is impossible to measure the effect of those restrictions on those who hold religious beliefs. It goes beyond mere loss of companionship and an inability to attend a lunch club. Equally, while funding has been made available by the respondents to encourage the participation in on-line services by elderly and vulnerable people, among others, to assist digital connectivity, that does not and cannot provide a substitute for worship.
Lord Braid added that: "I have not decided that all churches must immediately open or that it is safe for them to do so, or even that no restrictions at all are justified."
He explained that there was an unfair distinction between different parts of society: "The respondents had failed to recognise that manifestation of religious belief was a fundamental right and freedom, and had erred by treating it as if it were a non-essential activity, when it was not. In considering proportionality, the court should take into account that other activities or businesses, such as professional sport and banks, had been allowed to continue to operate. The courts also continued to operate, including the use of jury centres in cinemas. Churches could be operated with better regard for public safety than, say, supermarkets, which had been allowed to stay open (senior counsel was prepared to accept that they could be regarded as essential, but in her submission, no more essential than places of worship)."
27 church leaders brought the case forward, supported by the Christian Legal Centre and Adf international, including Rev Dr William Philip (who is interviewed below) and Rev John-William Noble. A letter setting out their concerns includes church workers from the Free Church of Scotland, independent evangelical pastors and baptist ministers. Catholic priest Canon Tom White (pictured) joined the ministers, adding that physical gatherings are inherent to parts of Catholic worship, such as confession and the church being a sacred space.
Article 9 of the ECHR states: "Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."
It therefore allows for limits to freedom of religion in the interests of public safety, but in this case the interference was deemed 'disproportionate'.
Churches in Scotland have not been allowed to gather for public worship for far longer than in the rest of the UK, since January, although they are allowed to open for private prayer or for broadcasting.
PA Russell Cheyne
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced recently that they would be allowed to reopen this Friday 26th March with a limit of 50 people.
Sturgeon said: "I know that the restrictions on communal worship have been difficult for many people, despite the exceptional efforts made by faith groups to reach out to their communities.
"This change is a proportionate step, which we believe can be achieved relatively safely, and which will hopefully enable more people to draw strength, comfort and inspiration from acts of collective worship."
The ruling could have wider implications on other countries challenging rules on worship during lockdowns and any future restrictions.
For the full judgment, click here.