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Let Us Worship: Geneva

Swiss doctor wins legal challenge to unlawful ban on public worship

What was at Stake?

  • Freedom of religion
  • The right to freely worship

Summary

In May 2021 the Constitutional Chamber of the Canton of Geneva ruled a COVID-19-related blanket ban on worship to be unlawful. The prohibition on religious services and events was suspended in an interim decision made by the Swiss Constitutional Chamber in Geneva in December 2020, and was confirmed as a violation of the fundamental right to religious freedom. In its judgment, the Court reasoned that the ban was disproportionate, even with its limited exemptions for marriages and funerals. Less restrictive measures would have been possible while still protecting public health.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Samuel Sommaruga, a medical doctor who had worked on a COVID-19 ward. He said: 

“While it was crucial to care for the physical and mental health of the people of Switzerland during the pandemic, care for spiritual health is essential too. The courts have recognized that the disproportionate ban on public worship was a violation of fundamental rights. I’m overjoyed that this decision will ensure that church doors are kept open in future at times of crisis, when the church is needed most.”

Broad support for religious freedom challenge

Both Jewish and Christian communities gave their support for the lawsuit challenging Geneva’s total ban on religious services and events. The regulation was part of Geneva’s COVID-19 measures. It banned all religious gatherings except funerals and weddings at a restricted capacity. While religious services were banned, other public gatherings were allowed to take place such as demonstrations and professional choir practices.

“Switzerland has a good track record in protecting the religious freedom of its citizens. It is a poster child of democracy and human rights. This had made it all the more worrying to see a total ban on all religious gatherings and events in such a drastic form. It was one of the broadest bans of its kind in Switzerland and most of Europe where similar bans have been successfully challenged. Enforcing it was a violation of the right to freedom of religion as protected in the Swiss Constitution and by international human rights standards. It disproportionately targeted religious groups’ activities over commercial activities. That’s why I’m delighted that Geneva’s Constitutional Chamber took this strong stand on protecting the human right to religious freedom, which steers local authorities to respect the rights of faith communities in future,” said Steve Alder, the Geneva-based lawyer who filed the case with the Court.

Jennifer Lea, Legal Counsel for ADF International said: “We celebrate this decision because the court recognized that which the authorities 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 never again have their rights erased in this way. We congratulate Dr. Samuel Sommaruga and all others involved for having the courage to take this necessary challenge forward, and securing protection for churches across Switzerland for the future.”

Our Role in the Case

ADF International provided legal support to our allies.

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