Religious leaders must challenge latest ban on public worship

Public worship will be effectively banned again in Ireland from St Stephen’s Day because of the increase in Covid case numbers. Leo Varadkar has indicated that the new level 5 restrictions could continue for two months.  The question that must be asked, as always, is whether the move to ban public worship is proportionate given the very strong safety measures churches have successfully introduced during the periods when we could attend Mass and other religious services. Given how safe they have been, the ban is almost certainly disproportionate.

This view is strengthened when we look at what is happening overseas. In the US, France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, legal challenges have been successfully mounted against overly-strict curbs on religious worship. In each case, judges have ruled that the curbs were disproportionate, that is, unnecessarily onerous compared with public health needs.

In France, for example, the Catholic bishops recently successfully challenged a Government rule saying only 30 at a time could attend Mass regardless of the size of the church. Again, the court said this was disproportionate.

In England, when new restrictions were introduced in early November and public worship was banned again, religious leaders from across all the major faiths signed a letter to Boris Johnson objecting to the move.

Places of worship, they said, demonstrated that they can be made safe from Covid transmission. “Given the significant work we have already done, we consider there to be, now, no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship.”

It is the same here. There is no direct scientific evidence to justify this de facto ban.

We call to mind again the remark by Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn in September, that public worship is considered “less important” in the context of a pandemic. At that point in level 3 areas like Dublin, you could still go shopping for clothes, visit the hairdresser, attend a gym. All of those things were considered more important.

This time, non-essential retail shops will be allowed to remain open, as will gyms for private training. But public worship will stop. We can see again what is considered a priority by the authorities here.

Parts of England have now been moved into what they call ‘tier 4’, which are the highest-level restrictions. Gyms are closing even for private training. Non-essential retail shops are also closing.

But this time, public worship will be allowed to continue albeit with the usual, and justifiable limits on numbers etc. The letter from religious leaders in early November must have had an impact. It also seems clear that the Government’s scientific advisors could find no evidence to justify such a ban.

In other words, England is shutting non-essential retail and allowing public worship to continue and here in Ireland we are doing the opposite.

What is disconcerting is that religious leaders in Ireland are not pushing back, unlike their counterparts elsewhere.

No joint letter like the one in England has been forthcoming, and no legal case mounted (although businessman, Declan Ganley, did legally challenge the first level 5 ban on public worship, a case that continues).

We can only hope that religious leaders here, both Catholic and otherwise, will at least put together a letter like the one in England and demand to see evidence justifying this ban, and ask that it be rescinded in the absence of such evidence.