Scotland’s supreme civil court rules nationwide church closures ‘unconstitutional’
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EDINBURGH, Scotland, March 24, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – Scotland’s supreme civil court has ruled in favour of a case challenging the legality of church closures throughout the country as part of government-mandated COVID lockdown measures.
In the first legal victory against COVID-related laws in Scotland, Lord Peter Braid, the Scottish Court of Session judge hearing the case, ruled that the closures were unconstitutional as well as interfering with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which delineates a right to manifest religious belief.
The legal case was brought forward by a consortium of leaders from Christian groups in Scotland, including Father Thomas Canon White, a Catholic parish priest based in Glasgow. White was preparing his own legal challenge against the Scottish government’s restrictions on churches before joining forces with Protestant leaders in the appeal.
The two-day hearing earlier this month saw the group petition the court to rule against the measures put in place through the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Amendment (No 11) Regulations 2021 (SSI 2021/3), deeming them unlawful and therefore declare that an individual may lawfully attend his place of worship.
An official press release from Judiciary of Scotland revealed that the group of Christian leaders argued that banning in-person worship was an occasion of the state interfering in spiritual matters, affairs beyond their competence, thus forming a breach of the constitution and human rights regulations.
Scottish government ministers argued against the charges, claiming that church closures were a matter of public health and “did not involve a spiritual matter.” They added that any interference with worship was limited as online worship formed a suitable substitute to attending public worship.
Braid, however, ruled in favor of the petitioners, declaring that the government did entangle itself in spiritual matters, despite directing their regulations towards public health concerns, a legitimate end. Whilst Braid’s ruling did render the restrictions unlawful, this did not mean that churches must “reopen immediately or that no restrictions are required,” but that the extent to which restrictions have been imposed “amount to a disproportionate infringement of the petitioners’ human rights.”
“All I have decided is that the regulations which are challenged in this petition went further than they were lawfully able to do, in the circumstances which existed when they were made,” he said.
Braid added that the Scottish government’s assertion that online worship was identical with Christian worship was “not for them … to dictate.”
“That might be an alternative to worship, but it is not worship. At very best for the respondents, in modern parlance, it is worship-lite,” the judge said.
“While some people may derive some benefit from being able to observe on-line services, it is undeniable that certain aspects of certain faiths simply cannot take place, at all, under the current legislative regime,” he said.
Braid also considered the fact that worshippers would be punished with criminal sanctions if they attended services according to the observance of their religious practice in his ruling.
“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,” he noted.
“The above factors all point towards the conclusion that the regulations have a disproportionate effect.”
As part of his ruling, Braid criticized the government for failing to demonstrate that “no less intrusive means than the Regulations [nationwide church closures] were available to address their aim of reducing risk to a significant extent.”
The judge also said that the government had not demonstrated why there was an unacceptable degree of risk to allow places of worship to remain open for communal services and that their reasons for refusing to allow churches to remain open for private prayer were “insufficient to withstand even the lowest degree of scrutiny.”
Canon White responded to the ruling with great optimism, saying that he was “overjoyed” at the success of the action.
“This decision highlights the significance of the Church’s role in the very fabric of our society,” White said.
“The court has understood the essential need to protect not only the physical and material health of our society but also its 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,” he continued.
“I’m grateful to people 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.”
The January 8 restrictions on churches and religious services imposed by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, are due to be lifted on March 26, two days after the ruling was handed down, but in time for Holy Week liturgies to be celebrated publicly.
There will still be a hard limit of 50 persons allowed into churches at any given time, regardless of the actual capacity, which is up from the limit of 20 people that was in force prior to January’s nationwide church-closure edict.