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Challenging Uganda’s Worship Ban

#LetUsWorship

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Topic | Freedom of Religion

Ugandan people of faith celebrated this September as the nation-wide ban on public worship was lifted after 96 days. A new presidential directive ended the most recent Covid-19 related measures, under which malls, arcades, and business centers were able to open, but attending churches and other places of worship was prohibited – even if the congregation gathered outdoors.

A church in Kampala and a representative from the Muslim community had taken legal action challenging the Ugandan government’s ban on public worship before Uganda’s High Court. Their challenge was followed by similar cases before the Ugandan Constitutional Court and the East African Court of Justice. The latter cases are still ongoing as they seek to ensure that the government never again passes blanket bans on worship. 

Who:
Agnes Namaganda and an alliance of faith leaders

Where:
High Court, Uganda; Constitutional Court, Uganda and
East African Court of Justice

Advocacy Team:
Sean Nelson, Kelsey Zorzi

“I thank God that we are finally allowed to worship together again. Participating in worship is spiritual nourishment, as essential as taking food and water. During parts of 2020 and 2021, the government has unfairly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on, for example, places of commerce.”

Case Summary

In September 2021, an alliance of Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim faith representatives, along with parliamentarians, brought a legal challenge to Uganda’s COVID-19 restrictions on public worship before the Constitutional Court. This case followed similar challenges brought by faith communities before Uganda’s High Court and the East African Court of Justice. All aim to have the disproportionate blanket bans on worship, which were imposed during parts of 2020 and 2021, declared unlawful.

Protecting both public health and freedom of religion  

“People of faith must not be discriminated against. If going to the mall and eating at restaurants is allowed, people shouldn’t be barred from visiting places of worship. It is essential to ensure both that our communities remain healthy and that the right to gather for worship is upheld. For many, communal worship is an integral part of their faith. It is unacceptable that they should be deprived of this right,” said Tomusange Ismael, a spokesperson for Muslims in Nakawa division, Kampala.

“Freedom of religion and belief is a human right that must be afforded the highest protection. This includes the right to manifest one’s faith in public. It is protected by both Ugandan law and international treaties. There is no reason the government cannot find solutions that protect both public health and communal worship. There is no clear reason why faith groups are held to higher standards than places of commerce. Restrictions on this right must meet the bar of being necessary, legitimate, proportionate, and non-discriminatory. Across Europe, in the US, and Latin America, similar blanket bans on public worship have been ruled unlawful,” said Sean Nelson, Legal Counsel, Global Religious Freedom, for ADF International. 

Discriminatory operational hurdles for places of worship 

This year’s restrictions were implemented in a similar manner to restrictions put in place last year. Following an easing of previous lockdown measures in June 2020, places of worship were not allowed to reopen with other similar public places. They had to wait two more months until further consultations could take place between the Ministry of Health and the Inter-Religious Council. 

When the doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious buildings were finally cleared to open in August 2020, they had to adhere to government-enforced Standard Operating Procedures of greater difficulty than regular public places or places of commerce. Faith groups were required to have a team of trained medical personnel attend every worship service, and security guards to ensure that worshippers remained adequately spaced when in line for having their temperature taken upon entry. 

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