‘Urgent clarity needed on directions for religious gatherings’ — FOR SA

Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (PHOTO: Times Live/Simphiwe Nkwali).


Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) has written to the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to request clarification on the Directions relating to Norms and Standards for Religious Gatherings issued on May 28.

The letter thanks government for rightly considering the submissions and proposals made by the religious community (including FOR SA, who made submissions on behalf of religious leaders and organisations representing approx. 15.5 million people from a broad cross-spectrum of denominations, churches and religious organisations, including African spirituality and indigenous churches).

In terms of the Level 3 Regulations, religious buildings have been permitted to open, thereby allowing the administrative offices of churches and religious organisations to operate again. The Directions also permit, subject to stringent social distancing and health/sanitisation protocols, the reopening of places of worship for gatherings of no more than 50 people.

“Government’s ultimate recognition and endorsement of the importance of the role of the religious community was timely, and will enable this vital sector of society to be further empowered to help meet the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of our nation in this time of crisis”, says Michael Swain executive director of FOR SA. “However, this clearly is a time for the religious community to proceed with caution, bearing in mind the significant risks and responsibilities which accompany the rights that government has now recognised”.

It is the express position of FOR SA and all the religious leaders, churches and religious organisations that it represents, to obey the laws of the land (including all the regulations and directions issued). However, this will be exceptionally difficult as a result of the ambiguity and lack of clarity of some of the clauses. To this end, FOR SA is seeking urgent clarification from the minister to ensure that these are properly understood and that no religious leader falls foul of them as a result of inadvertent non-compliance.

The following clauses in particular need clarification:

Inclusion of religious leaders as “essential workers” at all Lockdown Alert levels

Although the president indicated (and the minister’s media statement confirmed) that religious leaders would be recognised as “essential frontline workers” for purposes of spiritual counselling, neither the Level 3 Regulations nor the Directions explicitly recognise religious leaders as “essential workers”. This may prove problematic in the event that any area moves back to Alert Level 4 or 5. FOR SA trusts that this omission is not intended because spiritual counselling is arguably even more necessary and “essential” if/when the infection (and death) rate increases amongst its members and communities.

Inclusion of “home church” as a place of worship

In terms of the regulations, “places of worship” are defined as meaning “any place or premises usually used for religious purposes, including churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other recognised places of worship”. Various religious leaders and organisations are interpreting this clause as including individual homes – presumably because many churches, in the ordinary course (and therefore “usually”), run church and worship meetings in the form of home church/cell groups in members’ homes during the week. Whether (or not) this interpretation is valid, requires urgent clarification, because there is a high degree of legal uncertainty that may end in needless arrest.

Inclusion of “drive-in” churches

The regulations define a “religious gathering” as meaning “a gathering at a place of worship for religious purposes”. Some churches are considering “drive-in” religious gatherings (as have been permitted in the USA and elsewhere) since these present a much lower risk of infection than physically meeting together in a confined space. Except for the use of ablution facilities (which can be sanitised), people will remain in their cars. It would seem logical that such services should be permitted, but clarification is needed.

Inclusion of multiple venues and alternative ratios for limitation of numbers

The Directions provide that “religious gatherings of not more than 50 persons are allowed subject to the conditions outlined in these Directions”. It is not clear, however, whether the limitation of 50 people is per site or per building. The reason is that many of the bigger religious organisations have various buildings/auditoriums, each of which can comfortably accommodate 50 people with appropriate physical distancing, on the same site/premises.

Many different religious organisations meet in different rented venues such as on university campuses, in hotels and conference venues, etc. The Directions could certainly not mean only one group on a large campus with multiple large halls spread over a large area?

FOR SA further mentioned that the 50 person limit seems somewhat arbitrary, given that an auditorium that normally seats 3 000 people could easily accommodate more people while observing appropriate social distancing and other health protocols. It recommended that the Minister considers fixing the limit as a percentage (eg. 30%) of the normal seating capacity.

FOR SA will be producing and distributing a Frequently Asked Questions document on the Regulations and Directions affecting the religious community. This will empower and enable religious leaders who may be considering the limited reopening of their public gatherings, to proceed lawfully and with appropriate caution.

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