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As churches reopen, Ugandan faith groups recommit to challenging Summer worship ban

  • Worshippers rejoiced on Sunday as Churches were permitted to open for the first time since 18 June

  • Government concession comes after three cases filed to challenge Covid-19-related blanket ban on worship, even when malls and business centers could open

KAMPALA (30 September 2021) – Ugandan people of faith celebrated this weekend 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.

“I thank God that we are finally allowed to worship together again. Participating in worship is much more significant than attending a mall – it is spiritual nourishment as essential as taking food and water. During parts of 2020 and 2021, the government has openly and unfairly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on, for example, places of commerce. While I’m delighted to see churches open, our case, supported by ADF International, remains important. The courts now have the opportunity to ensure that the community is never again deprived of access to a place to meet with God and minister to the suffering at a time of need,” said Agnes Namaganda, a member of the Christian fellowship supporting the court challenge to the worship ban.

Under new rules, houses of worship can host a maximum of 200 people, adhering to strict health and safety measures. This 200-person cap applies to all churches even though some houses of worship have far greater capacity than others. For Agnes Namaganda, this limit is significant, given that her church has a congregation of over 7,000 Christians, which rose to as many as 20,000 online streamers during the lockdown. Though their outdoor premises have the capacity to hold far more than 200 people at a two-meter social distance, the limit is fixed and bears no relationship to the size of the facility.

Three challenges filed against blanket ban on public worship

Earlier this month, 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.

“Religious Freedom is a human right that must be afforded the highest protection. Included in religious freedom is the right to manifest one’s faith in public. This right is protected by both Ugandan law and international treaties. Rather than issuing a blanket, country-wide ban on worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Uganda, in line with the vast majority of nations around the world, could have implemented policies that would have protected both public health and the right to communal worship. Across Europe, the United States, and Latin America, similar attempts at blanket bans on public worship have been ruled unlawful. We hope to see the courts in Uganda reach this same conclusion,” said Kelsey Zorzi, Director of Global Religious Freedom for ADF International.

A global trend: disproportionate worship bans declared “unlawful”

Human rights group ADF International has supported similar legal challenges against blanket bans on worship across Europe and in Latin America.

In March, Scotland’s top civil court found that a blanket ban on public worship was unlawful. The challenge was successfully brought by 27 faith leaders and a Glasgow Priest, Canon Tom White. The Scottish decision affirmed that any restrictions on fundamental freedoms must be necessary and proportionate. In November 2020, Westminster’s chief medical and scientific advisors had conceded that evidence for church closures was “anecdotal” at best and “not based on scientific fact.”

One day after the Scottish ruling in March, the Chilean Supreme Court unanimously ruled that COVID-19 restrictions have been applied in a discriminatory manner against believers in Chile. The landmark ruling recognized that freedom of religion is a human right that cannot simply be suspended.

Legal action is currently underway in Ireland, where for almost a year, people of faith were criminalized for attending public worship. Leaving one’s home to attend a worship service could have incurred a potential penalty of a fine, or up to six months in prison. To find out more, visit www.letusworship.global/ireland.

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