A Glasgow priest has launched a legal action to stop a north-south divide on the right to worship during lockdown.
Canon Tom White whose St Alphonsus parish is in the heart of the city’s famous Barras has issued a pre-action letter to the Scottish Government demanding it ends the blanket ban on places of worship.
A response must be made before Tuesday February 23.
Lockdown measures designed to stop the spread of coronavirus have forced places of worship to shut.
Canon Tom’s case is being supported by ADF International, the faith-based legal organisation which is at the forefront of taking action to support religious freedom, both in the UK and around the world. It is concerned that with the present ban Scottish worshippers face criminal penalties for going to church while their neighbours in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can attend with safety measures in place.
Canon Tom, who hit the headlines when he was attacked during an Orange Order parade three years ago, said: “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.
“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.”
Lois McLatchie of ADF International from Helensburgh added: “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.”
Other religious leaders in Scotland have also started legal proceedings against the Scottish Government.
Some representatives from the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and a number of independent churches last month launched a claim for judicial review.
Lawyers for the religious leaders said last week that Lord Braid has now granted full permission for a substantive hearing next month, which they said could result in the courts ordering Scottish ministers to allow churches to reopen.
The Rev Dr William Philip, leader of the Tron church in Glasgow, said: “Criminalising corporate worship is both damaging and dangerous for Scotland, and we are pleased that this case will be heard in March 2021.
“We must care for people as whole human beings, and Covid-19 is not the only threat to health and wellbeing.
“Our congregation of 500 in the heart of Glasgow is diverse in age and background, including some of the most vulnerable in the city.
“I have witnessed first-hand huge suffering through lockdown, not least a huge increase in loneliness, misery and untold damage to mental health.”
As part of the latest lockdown rules, places of worship are only permitted to conduct weddings or funerals – with the number of attendees strictly limited – and to broadcast services online.
Communal worship can continue south of the border subject to restrictions on attendance.
The church leaders sent a pre-action letter to Scottish ministers on January 15 urging them to reopen churches, and lodged the legal claim for judicial review on January 28.
As part of the legal case, the church leaders will seek a “declarator” that the closure of churches in Scotland is unlawful, that church closure regulations must be reversed, and that a person may lawfully leave their home to attend a place of worship without fear of prosecution.
Ryan Christopher, director of ADF International in the UK, said: “Freedom of religion is a foundational human right. We support Canon Tom’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 Scottish 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.”
Covid Scotland: Lockdown ban on church services ‘unfair’, Catholic Bishops claim
ADF said Canon Tom is spearheading the opposition to the ban on public worship in tandem with the wider Catholic community, making the case for churches to be considered an essential service during a time of societal crisis.
ADF said the Scottish Government is being “held up to scrutiny” on the issue for forcing the closure of all churches at a time when ‘essential’ businesses, including bicycle shops, remain open.
ADF say that English authorities, meanwhile, have allowed churches south of the border to perform their vital mission in compliance with strict hygiene requirements. Wales and Northern Ireland have similarly adopted this approach.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing litigation.”