Opening of churches welcomed but answers still sought from government

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on Monday night (PHOTO: Youtube/SABC screenshot).

Religious organisations called off an urgent application in the Johannesburg High Court today over an indefinite ban on faith-based gatherings after President Cyril Ramaphosa granted them some relief when he announced amendments to lockdown regulations last night.

But while they welcomed the amendments which now permit gatherings at “faith-based” organisations of up to 50 people (indoors) and 100 people (outdoors), Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) executive director Michael Swain said “some some crucial issues remain to be decided, including the ‘in-principle’ issue regarding the constitutionality of government’s decisions and their decision-making process regarding faith-based gatherings.”

FOR SA had previously filed papers to ask for, among other things, that government’s complete and indefinite ban on faith-based gatherings be lifted with immediate effect. The application, which was supported by churches and religious organisations representing 11 million+ people, was set down for hearing in court today – along with similar applications by the South African National Christian Forum, Afriforum and the Muslim Lawyers Association.

“We are very pleased that government has listened to the appeals from many quarters of the faith-based community, albeit on the proverbial steps of court,” said Swain.

He said the new religious gathering rules do not mean that institutions “must” gather – only that, for those who wish to do so safely and responsibly now have the limited freedom to do so once again.

Regarding the way forward, he said that the parties who were set to argue in court today subsequently came to an agreement regarding the further conduct of the matter, which was made an order of court.

In terms of the court order, government must deliver any records of decisions that they want to provide, by February 15. Thereafter, FOR SA and the other applicants will have opportunity to supplement their papers, whereafter government will have opportunity to do the same. The parties will also request the Deputy Judge President that the matter be set down for hearing as soon as possible from May 17, he said.

“Although faith-based gatherings have again been permitted, it is very possible that we will face one or more waves of the pandemic”, said Swain.

“It is therefore critical that we establish a precedent regarding the reasoning and basis upon which government can lawfully regulate religious gatherings as the pandemic unfolds.”

President of the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF) Bishop Morati Mashashane said that despite the reopening of churches the forum will push ahead with its bid to have the ban under lockdown regulations declared unconstitutional, reports Eyewitness News.

He said the SACF wanted an order preventing government from shutting down churches in future.

In other reported developments prior to Ramaphosa’s announcement on relaxing restrictions on religious gatherings, the ATM party filed papers at the Pretoria High Court last Friday, opposing the ban on services, and several Dutch Reformed Church churches filed an urgent application in the Johannesburg High Court, asking that the ban on services be lifed.

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