27 church leaders sue Scottish gov’t for criminalizing in-person worship

St. John's Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, Scotland, July 9, 2010. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Kim Traynor)

More than two dozen church leaders in Scotland have joined legal proceedings against the Scottish government, demanding a judicial review of tighter pandemic lockdown measures that have closed churches for in-person services and “criminalize[ed] public worship.”

The church leaders argue in a claim for judicial review that the coronavirus regulations imposed by the Scottish government this month “are in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights [Articles 9 and 11] and the Scottish Constitution,” according to a statement issued by the London-based Christian Legal Centre.

The claim is filed by 27 church leaders, including those from the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland and independent churches.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued the regulation that took effect on Jan. 8. According to the legal group, the regulation makes it “a criminal offense in the highest tiers for churches to hold services in-person and, for example, to conduct baptisms.”

On Jan. 15, a pre-action letter was sent to Scottish Ministers on behalf of the church leaders.

“The Scottish Ministers have failed to appreciate that the closure of places of worship is a disproportionate step, and one which has serious implications for freedom of religion,” they wrote. “Scotland is the only nation in the United Kingdom that has closed places of worship at this present time and this action is also out of step with the restrictions that have been put in place in other countries.”

The pastors also warned that the restrictions prohibit them from supporting the material, emotional and spiritual needs in their congregations and communities.

However, The Scottish Ministers rejected the claim in a response letter dated Dec. 22 from the Scottish Government Legal Directorate. The letter contends that the state can “regulate the secular activities of Churches … for the purposes of protecting public health.”

But the Christian Legal Centre argues that there had been no attempt to close churches in Scotland since the persecution of the Presbyterian church, instituted by the Stuart kings, in the 17th century.

In the legal filing, the church leaders hold that public, corporate worship, involving the physical gathering together of Christians, is a fundamental and indispensable aspect of their religion. The leaders stressed that “in the absence of the gathered people of God, there is effectively no ‘church.”’

The Rev. Nathan Owens from Maxwell Church in Kilmaurs said in a statement that he serves several people in the vulnerable population. He said he had seen the “dire consequences” that have resulted from the shutdown of churches.

“We think churches being open is not only a human right or a Scottish constitutional matter, but is one of the most vitally important ways our society can respond to this pandemic,” Owens asserted.

Rev. William Philip, who leads the 500-member Tron Church in Glasgow City Centre, warned that the “poorest, the oldest, and those most vulnerable” do not have access to his church’s remote broadcasts.

“They are excluded completely from the possibility of Christian worship, and the comfort and encouragement in life and death only this can give,” Philip said in a statement.

Pastor John William-Noble of Grace Baptist Church in Aberdeen points out that churches recognize the pandemic as a “very serious” matter and have “followed a number of guidelines given by the government in order to protect health and safety.”

“Churches have demonstrated that they are one of the most COVID-secure parts of society,” he said.

The Christian Legal Centre quoted microbiologist Ian Blenkharn, who described the lockdown strategy as “illogical.”

It is “illogical to propose that church premises can be used for blood donor sessions, food banks, and other social support activities, and if required for COVID-19 testing and vaccination activities,” but not for public worship, Blenkharn was quoted as saying.

There are “no barriers to the safe opening of churches for worship,” he added.

“Indeed, there is an overwhelming and unavoidable comparator that church services present no additional risk of COVID-19 coronavirus infection than would the many different commercial activities in the manufacturing, supply, and retail sectors, etc. that are now permitted to operate,” Blenkharn said.

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