Scotland’s ban on public worship as part of the covid-19 regulations has been overturned in the Scottish Court of Session after a challenge by Glasgow Catholic priest, Canon Tom White, along with a coalition of 27 other faith leaders.
The judge said that the regulations went further than was legally permissible, but that this did not mean that churches should “reopen immediately or that no restrictions are required.”
However, the court decision went on to add that churches were being treated unfairly compared to other public spaces regarded as “essential” by the State.
“I have concluded that the regulations…constitute a disproportionate interference with the Article 9 right of the petitioners and others. As such, they are beyond the legislative competence of the respondents. The regulations are also a disproportionate interference with the petitioners’ and additional party’s constitutional rights,” said the judge, who also rejected the government’s assertion that religious services could simply be held online.
“While some people may derive some benefit from being able to observe online services, it is undeniable that certain aspects of certain faiths simply cannot take place, at all, under the current legislative regime,” he said.
“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. The fact that the regulations are backed by criminal sanctions is also a relevant consideration.
“Were the petitioners to insist on manifesting their beliefs, in accordance with their religion, they would be liable to be met with a fine of up to £10,000 – a not-insignificant penalty. The above factors all point towards the conclusion that the regulations have a disproportionate effect.”
He added that the government had merely “paid lip service” to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
“[There is] no evidence that [the government] have accorded it the importance which such a fundamental right deserves”.
Canon White said that he was “overjoyed” by the result, saying that it “highlights the significance of the church’s role in the very fabric of our society.”
“The court has understood the essential need to protect not only the physical and material health of our society, but also it’s spiritual needs and therefore overturned the disproportionate, unnecessary and now deemed illegal blanket ban on public worship.
“Now, we can trust that our fragile and damaged communities will never again be left without the church as a source of hope, comfort and vital spiritual nourishment in times of crisis.
“I’m grateful to all across Scotland and beyond who have offered their financial support for my case and who have faithfully prayed with me for church doors to be reopened. Thanks be to God for this wonderful news.”