Spanish supreme court suspends excessive COVID restrictions on Masses
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MADRID, Spain, February 23, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — Following a recourse by an association of Christian lawyers, the Supreme Tribunal of Spain suspended COVID restrictions on public Masses in the autonomous region of Castilla y León north of Madrid. The region includes the historic university town of Salamanca, as well as Segovia, Burgos, Valladolid and Avila — where saint Teresa founded her first reformed Carmel. It is a region of massive churches and monumental cathedrals, where according to local government rules, only 25 faithful could assist at Mass. Indeed, the same limit applied to outdoor Masses.
The Asociación Abogados Cristianos had asked the Supreme Tribunal for a “provisional measure” in order to protect the rights and liberties of church-goers. The Tribunal agreed that the sanitary measure limiting attendance to 25 people even in the largest churches — the nave of the cathedral of Burgos is 5,000 square meters — was “patently disproportionate” because it did not take into account the location or the characteristics and measurements of buildings involved, and did not even distinguish between celebrations taking place inside or outside.
Some of the churches in the region can house several thousand people. On the other hand, the rule was also disproportionate because it allowed 24 people to join for worship in a small chapel or room with the same maximum capacity. Abogados Cristianos highlighted this point during the hearing and also argued that there should be no maximum number of worshipers allowed: instead, security and hygiene measures and their feasibility in a given venue should be looked at.
The measures that had been put into place on January 15 by the “Junta” (autonomous government) of Castille and Leon were also suspended because their duration was indefinitely extended until the end of the sanitary “state of emergency” and because they were extended indiscriminately to all locations without taking their differences into account. It added that the “risk of contagion” is the “enabling element” for restrictions: in other words, it needs to be verifiable if limits are to be imposed.
The limit to public worship “is without doubt burdensome for the practice of collective demonstrations of the Catholic religion, it affects a fundamental right and its proportionality is patently inadequate,” decided the high court in acceding to the Christian Lawyers’ request.
Last Sunday, hundreds of Catholics joined a public demonstration organized by that association in front of the Saint Benedict church of Valladolid with the theme: “Respect my faith.”
The “Junta” of Castille and Leon appears to have been expecting the rejection of its anti-religious measures, having already been disavowed a few days earlier when the Supreme Tribunal decided that the 8 p.m. curfew set up in the region by the authorities was illegal, because the declaration of the state of emergency only allows regional curfews to start between 10 p.m. and midnight.
So last Friday, more than a month after having established “patently disproportionate” restrictions on public worship, the regional government took the precaution of modifying its 25-person rule, authorizing church attendance up to one third of churches’ capacity — of which it had acknowledged, during the hearing, that it often goes far beyond 25 people.
Despite this relaxation of rules which according to the “Junta” made the ruling of the Supreme Tribunal pointless, Abogados Cristianos decided not to step down and to continue judicial proceedings. President Polonia Castellanos explained last Friday that the aim was to “avoid this sort of thing happening again.” She added that the measure they had fought was “totally discriminatory” and that “no leader of an autonomous government has the competency to restrict a fundamental right such as religious freedom.”
Abogados Cristianos were probably right to be cautious even in the face of good news. Last Friday, when the announcement was made that the 25-person rule was being lifted, León Francisco Igea of the Ciudadanos party made clear that if he had had the choice, he would have closed all churches in Castille and Leon in January “because that was what the situation called for.”
“I don’t care who says it; it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible or in the New Testament that you have to say Amen to everything a Cardinal says. I have a lot of respect for the Catholic hierarchy, but I have even more respect for the message; and the message of the Gospel leads me to protect the lives of my brethren and I do what I think I have to do as a politician and as a Chrisian,” said Igea. He suggested that the best of messages can end up “in the hands of a seedy messenger.”
A few days earlier, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares of Valencia had said he almost cried when he found his cathedral nearly empty for Mass, adding that restrictions to public worship in many autonomous regions had gone beyond what is reasonable. In his pastoral letter, he wrote: “I sincerely believe that in the present circumstances, at least some autonomous governments are overdoing it with regard to religious freedom by humiliatingly reducing the number of people allowed to participate in the celebration of Holy Mass in churches.”
In many regions, including Castilla y León, theaters and cinemas are allowed to operate with restrictions in most places as well as supermarkets, bars, and restaurants.
Most have a gage for churches of between 30 and 50 percent of capacity, with only 25 percent and singing prohibited in Aragón, and 75 percent in Navarra, while churches are required to shut by 9 p.m. in Madrid.
Abogados Cristianos also challenged restrictions on public worship in the region of Cantabria (northern Spain) where only 10 people can assist at Mass in four municipalities under lockdown.
As in France last May, the Spanish bishops complained more or less strongly against restrictions, but left it to lay groups to initiate legal proceedings.