The Catholic Union has warned about disproportionate interference with people’s freedom of religion or belief during lockdowns imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
In evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), the Catholic Union states that the Government was slow to reopen churches after the first national lockdown. It also highlights the lack of evidence for closing churches again in England last November.
The JCHR – which is made up of MPs and peers – is carrying out an inquiry into the impact of lockdown measures on human rights. As part of the inquiry, the JCHR called for evidence on the impact of lockdowns on freedom of religion and belief, and in particular on collective worship.
The Catholic Union highlighted the importance of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits governments interfering with religious practice, except in certain circumstances.
To be lawful, the Government must have conducted a specific ECHR compliant proportionality exercise to show that church closures were necessary to control the spread of the virus. The Catholic Union is not aware of any such assessment being carried out.
The JCHR is analysing the evidence and is expected to report later this year.
Catholic Union Head of Public Affairs, James Somerville-Meikle said: “Lockdowns have forced all of us to make huge sacrifices to control the spread of the virus and keep people safe. The pandemic is continuing to put a huge strain on people’s health, family budgets and relationships.
“We are not asking for special treatment – simply that the essential nature of churches for people in the communities they serve is recognised by the Government. For many people, churches have been a place of safety and a source of comfort and support during these dark times.
“While we are pleased that churches in England are currently allowed to remain open, it’s clear that the importance of churches has not always been recognised by the Government during this pandemic – and the restrictions on freedom of religious practice have sometimes been disproportionate.
“Our bishops have made it clear that the obligation to attend Mass remains suspended and that people should consider very carefully the safety of others in deciding whether to attend churches in person. There will be some churches which choose not to open because of their size or location. But that must be a decision for individual priests and parishes, and not something the Government dictates.”
Picture: A woman prays at the closed doors of Westminster Cathedral ahead of Easter morning Mass during the initial Covid-19 lockdown last year.