Bans on communal worship during the pandemic were “profoundly illiberal and illegitimate”, says top EU official Jan Figel, who has filed a religious freedom challenge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Arguments have been submitted to the court by the Slovak politician and former EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
The case hinges on the question of whether blanket bans on public worship during Covid were compatible with the right to the communal exercise of religious freedom.
Figel said that blanket bans “ignore the central role that religion plays in the lives of believers”, and that it was “evident” that religious worship was able to take place “safely” during the pandemic.
He argued that for people of faith, communal worship and spiritual nourishment “can be as important as bodily nourishment” and should be protected in democratic societies.
“Religious freedom as a basic human right deserves the highest level of protection. Prohibiting people from worship and communal religious exercise is profoundly illiberal and illegitimate,” he said.
“Worship bans were unfair and disproportionate. Our arguments submitted to the court demonstrate clearly that blanket bans are violations of religious freedom under international human rights law.”
Bans on communal worship were imposed in a number of countries during the pandemic, including the UK and Slovakia.
In Slovakia, blanket bans were justified by the government because of the availability of digital worship options.
The ECHR has in the past ruled in favour of the “freedom to manifest one’s religion not only alone and in private but also in community with others, in public and within the circle of those whose faith one shares”.
In 2021, Scotland’s highest civil court ruled that the Scottish government’s blanket ban on church services during the pandemic was unlawful and that digital options “are best viewed as an alternative to worship, rather than worship itself”.
Figel’s legal challenge is being support by the Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), which said that a ruling from the ECHR on the right to communal worship could set a precedent across 46 European states.
“The international legal framework is very clear in its protection of this right as it benefits everyone – people of faith as well as people of no faith,” said Dr Adina Portaru, senior counsel for ADF International.
“Fundamental freedoms apply to all, and in times of crisis they must be protected rather than weakened.”
Figel, who was religious freedom envoy until 2019, added, “As special envoy, it was evident to me that the EU cannot credibly advance religious freedom throughout the world if its member states fail to uphold fundamental freedoms at home.”