- Swiss Constitutional Chamber of Geneva rules quasi blanket ban on worship to be disproportionate
- Switzerland joins Scotland, Chile, and several US states in condemning extreme restrictions on religious freedom due to pandemic
GENEVA (7 May 2021) – A court in Switzerland has become the latest to rule a COVID-19-related blanket ban on worship to be unlawful. The quasi prohibition on religious services and events was suspended in an interim decision made by the Swiss Constitutional Chamber in Geneva in December, and has now been confirmed as a violation of the fundamental right to religions 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.
Samuel Sommaruga, the medical doctor who was working on a COVID-19 ward on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed, said, “I’m delighted to celebrate this win for religious freedom alongside ADF International today. Restrictions on fundamental rights must always be proportionate and proven to be truly necessary. Given that other public gatherings were still permitted, but not religious ones, it was clear that this restriction was disproportionate – it targeted religious groups in a discriminatory way.”
“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 now 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,” he continued.
Grassroots support for religious freedom results in court victory
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 to see Geneva’s Constitutional Chamber take this strong stand on protecting the human right to religious freedom, which will steer 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, a global human rights group with offices in Geneva that supported the case, said, “We celebrate this decision because the court has 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.”
ADF International’s “Let Us Worship” campaign turns to Ireland
Despite worship bans being overturned in Switzerland, Chile and Scotland, the Irish government will not allow public worship to resume until Sunday 10th May. ADF International, which supported the legal action in Switzerland, are also supporting businessman Declan Ganley in a legal challenge to the proportionality of the Irish ban. It is hoped that the courts will follow this growing trend of courts re-affirming the fundamental right to religious freedom, and ensuring that church doors remain open in future.
“There is no clear reason as to why the Irish government prevented places of worship from opening for so long. Other European countries allowed religious worship to continue with safety precautions which protect both the public at religious services and the wider community. In Scotland and in Switzerland, we saw the same disproportionate measures struck down by the court as unlawful. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, protected by the Irish Constitution, and it is vital that the Irish government recognise this,” said Lorcán Price, Irish barrister and Legal Counsel for ADF International.
“Irish people of faith were deprived of worship, of the sacraments, and of the hope that the church can offer at a time when they were most needed – at a time of crisis. The Irish government must show that it understands that communal worship is essential for many Irish people, and commit to never again imposing such a draconian ban,” continued Price.
ADF International’s “Let Us Worship” campaign has launched a public letter to Ireland’s Prime Minster, Micheál Martin TD, asking that he affirm respect for religious freedom, recognise that churches are essential to society, and promise never again to disproportionately ban public worship from taking place.
The open letter can be read and signed by members of the public at www.letusworship.global/ireland.