French high court orders govt to change rule capping attendance at public worship to 30 people
December 1, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — On Sunday morning near noon, the French Council of State declared that a new government rule limiting attendance of public worship in churches to 30 people is disproportionate with regard to the public health objective of present COVID-19 restrictions. As lockdown measures are slowly being relaxed after a month of administrative nightmare, the continued clamping down on religious rights and liberties has led to the French government being formally disavowed and obliged to redefine the existing measures within three days.
This is the second time that the Council of State has ruled in favor of religious liberties and freedom of worship during the COVID-19 crisis: the first was in May, when the Christian rights defense league AGRIF and a number of traditional priestly and religious communities as well as other associations and individuals obtained the advanced reopening of public worship during the easing of lockdown period.
The Council of State is France’s highest administrative court charged with ensuring that decisions made by the executive comply with laws and regulations, but also fundamental rights and civil liberties, in particular through direct emergency procedures that require the suspension of evidently illegal decrees.
This time, it was the Bishops’ conference joined by Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris in his individual capacity, as well as the largely inactive official defense league of the bishops, “Croyances et libertés” (“Beliefs and liberties”) that seized the administrative high court. They were joined by the traditionalist Civitas association and the “Pour la Messe” association led by a handful of students who had launched a very successful petition for the return of public worship as soon as the government’s lockdown plan on October 28 made clear that schools, supermarkets and public transport, to name but a few would continue to function, while public worship, often in large churches, was banned.
The AGRIF, representing itself and many traditional priestly and religious institutes, as well as a number of Benedictine communities, the Protestant Evangelical committee for human dignity, the Association of Catholic Families as well as the Archbishop of Strasbourg, Bishop Luc Ravel, were also heard during the procedure.
The strong mobilization of the bishops certainly played an important role in the victorious effort, but as Bernard Antony, president of the AGRIF, pointed out in a communiqué, that their action “would probably not have taken place without the initial converging in May 2020, and then in October 2020, of the diversity of convinced Catholics.” The humiliation inflicted on the bishops after president Emmanuel Macron promised that the 30-person rule would be promptly revised, and nothing happened, also spurred them on.
The large number of Catholics of diverse liturgical preferences who took to the streets three Sundays running also made for a demonstration of peaceful but forceful and even prayerful – thanks to local administrative tribunals’ decisions – rallies three Sundays running in many French towns of all sizes.
The presiding judge of the Council of State agreed that the case brought before it required an urgent solution and went on to decide:
“Freedom of worship presents the character of a fundamental liberty. As governed by the law, this liberty is not merely the right of every individual to express the religious convictions of his or her choice while respecting public order. It also carries among its essential components, subject to the same condition, the right freely to participate collectively in ceremonies, in particular in places of worship.”
Judge Aladjidi added that this freedom must be exercised in such a way as to be combined with the constitutional value of protection of health.
His decision underscored the fact that shops and other places allowed to receive the public are not subject to a maximum number of clients or visitors; the disputed decree merely fixed a proportional rule regarding available space and also makes clear that couples or parents with their children should be counted as one person. He added that the representative of the government had not proved during the hearing that the 30-person rule was justified by any particular circumstances or danger of contagion.
More importantly, he judged that other activities remain prohibited or restricted in the present phase of lockdown, “but these activities are not of the same nature and the fundamental liberties at stake are not the same.”
From all this he inferred that the 30-person rule was “disproportionate in regard with the objective of preservation of public health” and constituted a “grave and manifestly illegal breach” of an “essential component of freedom of worship.”
The government was given three days by the Council of State to change its decree and to relax conditions for faithful to practice their religion during the coming weeks. New, less strict measures are expected to be announced by December 15.
The Bishops’ conference immediately published a statement expressing its satisfaction that “legality has been restored and reason acknowledged. It added that it hopes that legal procedures will remain the exception in the framework of a true dialogue it hopes to see resumed.”
To date, dialogue with the state over the COVID-19 crisis does not appear to have produced significant results. On Sunday evening, several bishops including the president of the Bishops’ conference, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, were received by Prime Minister Jean Castex and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. “It went well, we told the Prime Minister that his decision had been brutal and hurt certain people, he understood this well,” according to Moulins-Beaufort.
In his own diocese of Reims, this week-end, he had decided to cancel all masses as long as the 30-person rule was applicable.
The bishop added that he agrees that restrictions are necessary, such as a 30 percent occupation rule, but nothing will be decided by the government before it will have met with representatives of other faiths by Tuesday. This battle may well not yet be over.
On the other hand, many churches received many more faithful than the official of 30 people on Sunday morning, before the Council of State had issued its decision. In Paris, the large parish church of Saint Francis Xavier opened its doors to 300 faithful at the 10 o’clock Mass, according to a tweet by politician and writer Paul-Marie Coûteaux. It is safe to say that very few parishes respected the government rule: “The Church of France has disobeyed,” he wrote. Its grass-roots mobilization is making it very difficult for the powers that be to impose its will.