Religious organisation heads to court to declare ban on gatherings unlawful
An application by a Christian organisation seeking a declaration for the Covid-19 regulations around religious gathering to be unconstitutional is set to be heard in the Johannesburg High Court next week.
Freedom of Religion South Africa’s (FOR SA's) challenge to the complete nationwide ban imposed on religious gatherings by the co-operative governance and traditional affairs department (Cogta) in terms of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations earlier this year will be heard virtually from Monday until Wednesday.
“FOR SA is asking the court to define in which circumstances, and to what extent, government can restrict people from exercising their religious freedom rights guaranteed by section 15 of the constitution”, said FOR SA’s executive director, Michael Swain.
“This includes the right of people to gather together in person to collectively exercise their faith.”
FOR SA is arguing that the religious community was unfairly discriminated against, and their religious freedom rights violated, when the government, Cogta, enforced a total ban on religious gatherings while permitting other, similar, gatherings to take place.
“Freedom to worship is central to the lives of millions of South Africans. No world should exist where you can sit side by side pulling the handle of a slot machine in a casino, but if you then put your hands together in prayer, you can be arrested and face criminal prosecution.
“Government also cannot hide behind the mask of confidentiality to avoid accountability for its decisions and actions”, added Swain. “The public is entitled to see the science and data upon which the minister relied when she decided that passengers in a crowded taxi were less likely to catch and spread the Covid virus than congregants sitting masked up, sanitised and socially distanced in a place of worship.” said Swain.
FOR SA emphasises that no-one is asking for religious gatherings without proper hygiene, sanitisation and social distancing protocols in place. However, it argues that the government must either decide that all indoor gatherings are safe or that no indoor gatherings are safe.
FOR SA argues that religious leaders must be formally recognised in the regulations as “essential workers”.
“Unless it can show the scientific data to support its position, it is irrational – and therefore unconstitutional and unlawful – for government to allow people to sit together in a restaurant (often unmasked), but to forbid them to sit masked up and socially distanced in a church pew,” said Swain.
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