Word of Faith Christian Centre (WOF) in Port Elizabeth sent a lawyer’s letter to police yesterday opposing a threat to charge churches who host more than 50 people at drive-in services.
In the letter to SAPS spokesman Col Priscilla Naidu, who reportedly conveyed the threat via a local radio station, WOF maintains that the 50-person limit for “gatherings” does not apply to people in their cars in its parking lot and asked police to confirm that they will not interfere with their scheduled drive-in radio broadcast service at 11.30am on Sunday. The letter asks police to respond by 12 noon today.
The letter argues that the police interpretation of the national Covid-19 regulations is irrational and unconstitutional. It says that the church appreciates SAPS’ efforts in fighting crime and would like to assist them in any way it can but it does not believe it has violated any regulations.
In an interview this afternoon WOF leader, Pastor Jimmy Crompton ,said that police had not responded and apparently were taking the attitude that they simply enforce government regulations and therefore churches should take up the matter with government.
“I see this as a direct attack on the church of Jesus Christ,” he said of the government regulations which restrict churches substantially in comparison with other sectors. Word of Faith was able to utilise only about 2.5% of its congregational capacity he said. He said they strictly applied Covid-19 regulations at all gatherings. To date they had held three drive-in services.
In view of not receiving a response from the police to their letter he said he would have to “desperately try and contact everybody” to inform them that there will not be a drive-in service on Sunday.
In a press release sent out today, Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) says it has received a copy of the lawyer’s letter to the police on behalf of Word of Faith and agrees that “It is difficult to find any rationale or proof to support the concern that ‘drive-in’ events will accelerate the spread of the Covid-19 virus. On the contrary, logic alone would dictate that people sitting in their cars with the windows closed, listening to their radios and parked 1.5 metres apart in the open air represents a near zero threat level. It poses no greater health risk than being caught in a traffic jam or parking at a shopping centre. Such ‘drive-in; services would seem to be most reasonable, given that overseas they were allowed as early as March when the pandemic was at its most threatening. Furthermore, the Western Cape government is specifically encouraging faith-based organisations ‘to consider offering drive-in services’ in their (draft) Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Covid-19 Infection at Places of Worship”.
FOR SA says: “This dispute highlights the knock-on effect of a number of issues where government has failed to provide proper clarification, or where it is evidently treating different sectors of society with different standards. For example, conference centres are allowed to operate and utilise multiple venues on the same premises, whereas churches with the same type of facilities are limited to a single meeting of no more than 50 people in total. Even more illogical is the fact that casinos can operate based upon 50% of their floor space while churches (irrespective of floor space) are limited to 50 people. Perhaps the most extreme example – given that the single goal of the lockdown level strategy is to minimise the risk of person-to-person infection – is that taxis are allowed to operate at 100% of capacity, where evidently no social distancing is possible and no detailed records can be kept.”
Michael Swain, executive director of FOR SA says: “It is important that the measures that Government puts in place are consistent with their objectives of ‘flattening the curve’ and are not perceived as arbitrary, unreasonable or inequitable. FOR SA has repeatedly engaged with Government on these matters. We again appeal for Government’s engagement with the religious community, to resolve these evident issues of unequal treatment and lack of clarity. The religious community must be allowed to play its vital role of strengthening the fabric of our society without fear of unreasonable sanction or disruption.”