Call for churches to open: Christian groups go to court, SACC writes to president

Pastors are escorted by the SAPS in their march to the Union Buildings last Friday (PHOTO: Rapula Moatshe/ IOL News)

Call for church ministers to get priority vaccination

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) on Monday issued papers in the Johannesburg High Court to ask that government’s current and indefinite ban on faith-based gatherings be lifted. 

And on the same day the South African Council of Churches (SACC) sent a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa asking him “to give fresh consideration to the need to allow churches to gather for worship under the appropriate protocols of non-pharmaceutical preventive measures” and to meet with faith leaders to discuss the matter as soon as possible.

In its letter signed by Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the SACC, the council also requests that ministers of all faiths be recognised as essential workers for priority Covid-19 vaccine rollout in view of their exposure to Covid deaths and bereaved families throughout the process of grief and burial.

In a press release FOR SA says that in its court application it is specifically asking for the religious sector to be treated equally to, e.g, casinos, health clubs, cinemas and restaurants where gatherings of up to 50 people (indoors) and 100 (outdoors) are permitted. It also wants religious workers to be recognised as essential workers providing an essential service.

Its application is supported by multiple churches and religious organisations, representing over 11 million people, who believe that this ban amounts to unfair discrimination against the religious sector and is a gross violation of their constitutional right to religious freedom. It points out that religion, because of its fundamental importance as a human right, enjoys even greater constitutional protection than the economic sector.

“We believe that religious leaders, who have been at the forefront of providing relief, comfort and support to their congregations during this pandemic, should be allowed to make the decision on whether (or not) to open their venues for faith-based gatherings”, said Michael Swain, Executive Director of FOR SA. “If a restaurant owner can be trusted to make this decision, why not a pastor, imam, rabbi or priest?”

The arguments and relief in FOR SA’s application are very similar to cases recently adjudicated in Germany, Switzerland, France and the USA, where courts have struck down regulations which have unfairly discriminated against faith-based gatherings and places of worship.

In particular, FOR SA argues that while many religious organisations are using online platforms to reach their congregants, the prohibition on in-person gatherings has a discriminatory impact on poorer communities who cannot afford the necessary data or technology. This severely impacts their right to practise their religion.

“We acknowledge the difficult task faced by government in striking the balance between lives and livelihoods, especially during the severity of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic”, said Swain. “This makes it all the more important that it treats all sectors of our society equally”.

FOR SA’s application requests – at the first stage – that government provides the scientific data and reasons for banning all faith-based gatherings during the Adjusted Level 3 Regulations while allowing other, similar gatherings to continue. It also asks, pending the provision of this information, that faith-based gatherings be permitted to take place on terms no less favourable than those applicable to other, similar gatherings, subject to applicable health and sanitisation protocols and social distancing.

“Without knowing the data upon which Government has based its decision, it is difficult to understand why people sitting next to each other in a faith-based gathering pose a greater risk of spreading infection than those playing slot machines in a casino”, said Swain.

FOR SA has previously written numerous letters and made detailed submissions to Government on its dealings with the religious community during lockdown, largely without response. A FOR SA spokesperson told Gateway News last week that despite previous assurances from President Ramaphosa that they would be included in consultations with the religious sector they were not invited to a recent meeting with the president shortly before he announced the revised level 3 lockdown regulations

“We believe that we now have no option but to ask the court to review the regulations so that a fair assessment can be made as to whether (or not) Government’s decision is reasonable and justifiable in accordance with the requirements of the rule of law, the Constitution and just administrative action”, said Swain.

FOR SA’s application follows on a separate application lodged by the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF) in the Johannesburg High Court last week, which was postponed to Tuesday February 2. FOR SA is asking that its application be heard at the same time.

In its letter to the president this week, the SACC says that at his “interfaith consultation” on January 10 it asked for churches to be treated like other sectors such as restaurants that may host up to 50 people. When the government failed to lift the total ban on faith gatherings SACC heads of churches met to discuss the matter and the current letter to the president follows that gathering.

“We write to make a case for the admission of 50 Covid compliant worshippers indoors, and for outdoor worship up to 100; provided that the two are not combined in one event to make 150! Indeed, regular worship, well managed for Covid compliance, is less likely to be infectious than a funeral that has so many elements to it, and yet can have 50 persons,” writes the SACC.

Bishop Mpumlwana also writes that the intensity of the second wave of the panedmic has brought fear and despair in the lives of people which necessitates more availability of pastoral ministry.

“We believe that people need to be able to attend church for the benefit of pastoral support in the face of the need to give focused support to frontline workers in our congregations. Church ministries have to respond to heightened domestic violence and gender based violence; as well as address the depression arising from household economic impacts of job losses and the collapse of small businesses.

“It is not enough to say an individual can approach a church minister as an individual, for, an abused woman will not just go one-out, to the church office to report domestic violence. The person will take the opportunity to pull the church minister aside for such when already at church. Likewise a troubled person who might otherwise commit suicide will not just go to the church office to discuss her/his situation; but might more readily do so while at church, and partly inspired by the pastoral messaging of worship,” he writes.

In other recent Church responses to the government’s lockdown regulations a group of pastors marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria last Friday to demand that President Ramaphosa allow churches to reopen, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) has written to President Cyril Ramaphosa and a #Churchesmustmeet petition was launched.

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