COVID-19 Church restrictions justified, New Zealand court …… | News and reports
New Zealand’s High Court has ruled that government officials were not acting unlawfully when restricting and regulating religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The court acknowledged that the rules restricted the protected right to “manifest religious beliefs”, but ruled this permissible in the event of a health emergency.
From December 2021, the New Zealand government has limited religious gatherings to 100 vaccinated people or 25 unvaccinated people. Face masks were also required if the place of worship shared the site with other groups. The government’s chief health officer, Ashley Bloomfield, deemed religious gatherings “high risk” due to the presence of elderly and immunocompromised people.
Some religious leaders complained that the restrictions were reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and one was briefly imprisoned for refusing to comply.
Twenty-four Christian pastors and a Muslim imam sued Chris Hipkins, the minister for COVID-19 response, and Bloomfield, claiming the regulations violated their religious freedom. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA) states that “everyone has the right to manifest his religion or beliefs by worship, observance, practice or teaching, either individually or in community with others. others, and in public or in private.”
Judge Cheryl Gwyn, however, ruled that although the COVID-19 rules restrict religious freedom, this was justified by the need to reduce the risk to public health during a pandemic. The right to manifest one’s religious belief is protected, but not absolute. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also signed by the United States, religious freedom can be limited in the interest of public safety, health or morals.
New Zealand’s decision contrasts with what a number of other courts have decided. In the United States, Scotland, Switzerland and Chile, restrictions have been deemed illegal, either because they violated religious freedom protections or because they treated religious gatherings differently from secular ones.
New Zealand religious historian and media commentator Peter Lineham told CT that the New Zealand churches argument was a “direct mirror” of John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in California and other similar cases that have won in the United States.
“It’s very difficult for churches to realize that they are places of risk,” Lineham said.
Lineham is not surprised New Zealand churches lost out. Ideas about the separation of church and state are less deeply held than they are in the United States, and the right to practice one’s religion is meant to exist “in the context of a range of rights of humans who often bump into each other,” Lineham said.
During the trial, Christian scholars debated whether the health regulations amounted to excommunication, with the state assuming the power to say who could or could not attend church. Theologian Matthew Flannagan, a high school teacher in Auckland and a teaching member of the Orewa Community Church, one of the churches involved in the lawsuit, argued that was the case. He told CT that this amounted to a serious assault on religious freedom.
“We were apart,” Flannagan said. “We couldn’t commune together. Restrictions made this virtually impossible.
Paul Trebilco, New Testament professor at the University of Otago, disagreed.
“The unvaccinated are not actually ‘removed’ or ‘excommunicated’ from any congregation,” he told the court. “The number of other believers who are part of a particular congregation with whom they can interact is limited. They are still part of the congregation, although they won’t be able to interact with all the other members for a while.
According to Lineham, this was a crucial argument in the case. The churches had to prove that they were prevented from being the church.
“Trebilco rightly shows us that the argument that Christians must meet at all times to be the church is wrong,” he said.
Ninety-five percent of eligible New Zealanders are vaccinated. It is estimated that a disproportionate number of unvaccinated people – perhaps as many as 10% – are Christians.
The largest churches in the country complied with the regulations. Megachurches, including Arise Church and City Impact Church, went live in December and January. However, both churches complained about the regulations and questioned whether the government was right to do what it was doing.
“While we appreciate the importance of public safety and well-being in response to the pandemic and continue to adhere to current measures, we are very concerned about the potential temporary and permanent restrictions for religious activities and faith-based gatherings in depending on the vaccination status of churchgoers,” said Peter Mortlock, founder of City Impact. “Such restrictions would have a major impact on the mental, emotional and social health and well-being of thousands of people who call City Impact Church their church.”
Even though the restrictions were eased over Easter (although they weren’t completely lifted until September), some religious leaders questioned whether the regulations were making a difference in the fight against COVID-19.
“I don’t think there were any benefits gained – it was disproportionate,” said Jonathan Grant, one of four priests at St. Paul’s, a 1,000-member Anglican church in Auckland. “I think it was out of step with the rest of the world.”
Grant, one of 25 who sued, led smaller services during the pandemic so worshipers did not have to show proof of vaccinations. The church also offered online services.
However, not all New Zealand evangelical leaders share these concerns.
Grant Harris, senior pastor of Windsor Park Baptist, an Auckland church with 1,500 people, endorsed the decision.
“I was invited to be part of the deal,” he said. “I refused. I agree with the court.
COVID-19 restrictions have made things difficult, he said. But they did not stop him or his congregation from manifesting his religious belief.
“As far as our freedom of religion, it hasn’t been curtailed at all,” Harris told CT. “We all knew it was a temporary measure. We were always free to worship; we just couldn’t meet in one environment, and we just had to be creative.
Alan Vink, who spent 23 years pastoring Baptist churches, said he also believed the regulations were warranted.
“Extreme times require extreme measures,” he said. “Church is more than a Sunday meeting.”
Vink also criticizes pastors who have sued the government, calling it “grandfathering” and a “waste of time.” He said he was more worried about the continued impact of the pandemic on the church.
“In the cities, people are nervous about going back to church,” Vink said. “Thirty percent don’t come back.”
COVID-19 mandates, including requirements for face masks in indoor places such as shops and schools and on public transport, were scrapped this month.
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