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Challenging COVID Worship Bans

This story originally appeared on 1 August 2023 in the European Conservative

Do you remember what it was like to be banned from attending church services? For months, many countries forbade people from gathering for worship, prayer, communion, confession, or baptism. Church doors were closed either for everyone, or excluded the unmasked, untested, or even unvaccinated. Jesus, who met lepers with open arms, would certainly have disapproved.

Ján Figeľ, the former special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, is thinking ahead. He does not want freedom of religion to be restricted when the next crisis strikes, no matter what form it takes.

He understands that fundamental rights must be protected, especially during a crisis. For this reason, he has been appealing for two years at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against the restrictions and bans on religious services in Slovakia, which lasted for over six months. The ECHR ruling on this matter could be the first on worship bans during COVID, setting an important precedent for how governments will approach any future worship restrictions. The court’s decision would also affect residents of 46 European countries.

This week, Figeľ, who is represented by ADF International and Slovak lawyer Martin Timcsak, responded to the Slovak government’s statement and submitted his legal arguments to the court. Figeľ argues that the restrictions on religious services were not proportionate, reasonable, or necessary. These criteria, which must apply for a legitimate restriction of fundamental rights, were not met.  

Figeľ emphasizes that no one should be prevented from living peacefully according to their beliefs. He is convinced that religious services could have been celebrated safely even during the pandemic. Blanket bans, on the other hand, ignore the central role of faith in the lives of believers. For people of faith, attending a church service can be as important as eating and drinking, because it provides spiritual nourishment.

Many people may not have been bothered by church closures. After all, online services were often available. The Slovakian government even referred to these digital options to justify the church service ban after the fact. Across Europe, however, courts have so far come to a different conclusion: Scotland’s highest civil court, for example, ruled that digital options “are best considered as an alternative to worship rather than worship itself.” 

The Slovak government also argued that religion could be lived purely on an individual basis. However, Figeľ and his team countered that religious freedom explicitly protects communal religious practice as well. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) clearly protects the “freedom, either individually or in community, to manifest one’s religion or belief … through worship.”

A positive ruling by the ECHR in the Figeľ case would be a significant victory for religious freedom. It would send a signal to governments across Europe that they cannot impose sweeping and ill-considered restrictions on religious freedom under the pretext of protecting public health. Any restrictions must meet minimum standards by applying important criteria such as proportionality, reasonableness, and necessity.

The fundamental right to religious freedom is repeatedly undermined, weakened, and violated all over the world. Yet religious freedom is essential for everyone—not only for people of faith. It enables all people to live according to their conscience, regardless of their religious convictions. That is why freedom of religion is particularly protected in the Slovak constitution and the Convention on Human Rights.

Religious freedom is necessary for the maintenance of a free society. That is why the legal process is so important. The restriction of fundamental rights must be soberly evaluated. We must guard against governments sweeping what happened under the carpet. Otherwise, we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes when the next crisis strikes.

Sofia Hörder, Communications Officer for ADF International

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