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LET US WORSHIP: Scottish government has less than a week to respond to new legal challenge on church closures

  • Scottish government has maintained strict ban on public worship, though English churches can open with safety measures in place
  • Glasgow priest challenges government to protect freedom of worship, speaks out for deprived parish area

EDINBURGH (17 February 2021) – A Glasgow priest has launched legal action against Covid-19 related church closures. Scottish worshippers currently face criminal penalties for going to church, in contrast to their English neighbours who can attend with safety measures in place.

“As a priest, I have witnessed first-hand the grief and suffering that Covid-19 has caused for my parish members. Therefore I know, as a priest, that we need to open my church to be able to support them best in their hour of need,” said Father Tom White.

“I am most encouraged by the support of ADF International in my pursuit of lifting the ban on public worship – an issue which is weighing heavily on the heart of my community at this difficult time. I speak for many in the church when I say that it’s very important to keep people safe and well during this pandemic. But, this can and should be done while also allowing people to fulfil their need to draw close to God and worship in community at the church. With appropriate safety measures, we can accommodate both of these outcomes, as is shown in England, Northern Ireland and Wales,” he continued.

Father Tom White, a priest of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and the Dean of the City East St Alphonsus Church in Glasgow, is leading this effort as part of the Catholic community in making the case for churches as an essential service during a time of societal crisis. UK-based human rights group ADF International is supporting the case.

“Freedom of religion is a foundational human right. We support Father Tom White’s efforts because domestic and international law require the government to protect freedom of worship, including in public or in private, individually or in community with others. This right should be limited only to the extent that is necessary and proportionate. The government’s medical advisors have conceded there is no robust medical evidence for the closure of churches, which remain open in most European countries. We must find solutions which protect both the vulnerable and those who understand their communal worship to be as essential as food and water,” said Ryan Christopher, Director of ADF International in the UK.

Father Tom serves a parish community in Calton, Glasgow, which, according to census data spanning from 1971-2011, contains three of the most deprived areas in the whole of the UK. With a life expectancy that was measured in 2006 as being lower than that of Iraq, North Korea and the Gaza Strip, the local community have experienced acute loss and suffering, especially during the pandemic. The ability of the church to offer comfort and hope has motivated Father Tom’s plea to be allowed to re-open his church doors.

Father White has now issued a pre-action letter to the Scottish government to lift the blanket ban on places of worship. The government must answer before 23 February.

Government face challenges from several denominations

Father White is not the only person of faith to speak out against the ban. Ministers from a range of Christian denominations, including from the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), have, with the support of Christian Concern, taken legal action against the criminalisation of public worship.

The Scottish government has been scrutinised for forcing the closure of all churches while “essential” businesses, including bicycle shops, remain open. English authorities, meanwhile, have allowed churches in England to perform their vital mission in compliance with strict hygiene requirements. Wales and Northern Ireland have similarly adopted this approach.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Officer, asserted that while there could be transmission travelling to and from church, he admitted that any evidence for that was merely ‘anecdotal’ rather than ‘scientific fact’. Westminster’s Chief Medical Advisor Chris Whitty also affirmed that ‘all the faith communities in the UK have been extraordinarily responsible in the way they’ve tried to address this’ and acknowledged that there was only “very weak” data implying transmissions arising from Covid-secure Church services.

Should a legal challenge be successful, it would join a wave of similar bans being overturned across Europe. In the Canton of Geneva, France, and Germany, courts have ruled that the complete suspension of corporate worship is not proportionate.

“Why should Scots be denied the freedom afforded to our English neighbours? Authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and indeed, most of the rest of the world – have found a way to protect the public while also respecting the rights of religious communities. It is unclear why the Scottish government cannot do the same. Churches have much to offer during this difficult time. The government should not disadvantage the people of Scotland by failing to account for the moral and legal case for public worship,” said Lois McLatchie, from Scotland, a communications officer for ADF International.

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