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Glasgow priest overturns blanket ban on churches


Topic | Religious Freedom

In Canon Tom’s parish in The Calton, Glasgow, grief is no stranger. The area is home to three of the most deprived communities in the whole of the UK, with a reported life expectancy worse than that of Bagdad.The effects of the pandemic weighed heavily on the community.

The Scottish government, however, completely banned all Churches from opening for almost three months in 2021; even while authorities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and most of the rest of Europe have managed to find solutions which maintained public worship with safety measures that protect public health. Meanwhile in Scotland, “essential” businesses, including bicycle shops, remained open. Why did the government adopt such a disproportionately restrictive approach to freedom of worship?

Canon Tom White

Court of Session, Edinburgh

Advocacy Team:
Ryan Christopher, Jeremiah Igunnubole

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"As a priest, I need to open my church to support my community in their hour of need."

Case Summary

Standing alongside a coalition of 27 faith leaders, Canon Tom White,  with the support of ADF International, challenged the proportionality of the ban at Scotland’s top civil court. The judgement, handed down in March 2021, declared the government’s actions to have been unlawful . The ruling could prevent similar blanket bans on public worship from being imposed in the future by Holyrood.

The court reasoned that churches had been treated unfairly in comparison to other public places, which had been allowed to open throughout the latest lockdown. Even cinemas have been opened for the purposes of Sheriff Court jury trials.

ADF International worked alongside Aidan O’Neill QC, one of Scotland’s leading human rights advocates, who called the ban “an extraordinary abuse of the state’s power”.

“[The blanket ban] has a fundamental chilling impact on worship and belief. It requires people in good conscience to choose between God and Caesar,” he said.

“We celebrate this decision with Canon Tom White, because the court has recognized that which the government did not – that freedom of religion and belief is a human right to be afforded the highest protection. In declaring the ban to be “unlawful”, the court helps ensure that people of faith will not again have their rights erased in this way. We congratulate the Canon and the other faith leaders involved for having the courage to take this necessary challenge forward, and securing protection for churches across Scotland for the future,” said Ryan Christopher, Director of ADF UK.

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Should religious freedom be protected in times of crisis?

“I support freedom of religious belief as a basic human right that deserves the highest level of protection.

I stand up against worship bans which are illiberal and non-democratic. Blanket bans on public worship are incompatible with the international human right to the communal exercise of religious freedom. Fundamental freedoms apply to all, and they must be protected rather than weakened in times of crisis.”