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Tunbridge Wells vicar launches legal action over closure of churches

They said they would do it and they have.

A group of church leaders - including a vicar from Tunbridge Wells - has launched a claim for judicial review of the English and Welsh governments’ decision to close churches during lockdown.

Rev Peter Sanlon
Rev Peter Sanlon

In total 122 church leaders from many religious traditions have filed the action against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, claiming that the decision to ban worship services during the current lockdown is unlawful.

The existing Covid regulations allow churches to open to organise vital voluntary work, for funerals or for private prayer but not for joint acts of worship.

The churchmen are also challenging the Welsh Parliament’s decision to close churches during its three week ‘fire-break’ which ended on November 9, but which could be in place again in the New Year.

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the clergymen are seeking a judicial review on the grounds that government restrictions on public worship breach Article 9 of the Human Rights Act - the freedom of religion.

The action alleges that the government failed to discharge their public law duty of enquiry, especially by failing to ascertain the extent to which leaving open places of worship would risk contributing to the spread of Covid 19.

The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali
The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali

They also allege the government’s regulations went beyond the legislative power conferred by the Public Health 1984 Act.

The Rev Dr Peter Sanlon, minister at the Emmanuel Anglican Church which holds its services at The Number One Community Centre in Rowan Tree Road, Tunbridge Wells, said: "The government's restrictions have made it a criminal offence for Christians to gather for worship or prayer, or to go to church for worship on a Sunday. That can't be right."

"Being free to gather for church worship is something that is so important that it is legally protected. I am supporting this judicial review as I believe it is important for our nation's spiritual health, that we are free to meet for worship.

"It is vital for the credibility of our government, that it does not exceed its authority, in handling the pandemic.

"We all know the pandemic is very problematic, but undermining long established religious freedoms only stores up problems for the future.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May has also expressed concern
Former Prime Minister Theresa May has also expressed concern

"We pray for our government as we realise they are making difficult choices, and we pray this judicial review will help them make the right decisions in the right way.

"Our churches have shown they are able to meet safely for worship, we should be free to decide whether and how to do that."

His view is shared by former Prime Minister Theresa May who told Parliament: “My concern is the government today making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government in the future with the worst of intentions. It has unintended consequences.”

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly the Bishop of Rochester, said: “Church leaders recognise the seriousness of this pandemic, and that the government need to take the best scientific advice about the measures that are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, especially to vulnerable groups.

“This task has to be held in tension with the ancient liberties of the church which have been won through hard struggle over the course of our history. These liberties include freedom of belief, expression and worship.

'Our churches have shown they are able to meet safely for worship, we should be free to decide whether and how to do that...'

“The principle of the freedom of worship needs to be maintained and churches have been assiduous in maintaining safety in buildings and among worshippers.

“There is widespread unease among many church leaders about the lack of evidence and consultation regarding the ban on collective worship.

“Church leaders see collective worship, not as an optional extra, but as vital to the mental and spiritual health of believers, especially for the lonely and vulnerable.”

A court will determine whether the action can proceed on Friday.

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