Christians challenge Scottish Government over ban on communal worship during lockdown

(Photo: Scottish Parliament)

Church leaders are hailing a "crucial moment for the freedom of the church in Scotland" as they face the Scottish Government in court over the criminalisation of communal worship during lockdown.

They will be presenting evidence at a court hearing taking place online on Thursday and Friday, two days after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that communal worship could resume with restrictions from 26 March. 

The 27 leaders come from the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, and a number of independent churches.

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre (CLC), they argue that the suspension of services in church is unlawful, and a breach of human rights law and the Scottish constitution. 

Despite the Scottish Government's announcement on resuming communal worship, the church leaders are concerned that there have been no assurances or guarantees that similar restrictions criminalising in-person worship will not be enacted in the future.

Rev Dr Williams Philip, of The Tron church in Glasgow, said: "This is a crucial moment for the freedom of the church in Scotland.

"For public Christian worship to be banned and criminalised during this lockdown has been deeply damaging.

"The Government must be brought to account on this issue and a legal precedent set which clearly recognises that the state must never interfere with the life of the church in this way again, not only in Scotland, but across the rest of the UK."

They will also contest the Scottish Government's interference in religious freedom and the designation of public worship as "non-essential indoor social contact."

John-William Noble, Pastor at Grace Baptist Church Aberdeen said: "The Scottish ministers are willing to recognise and permit churches to open their buildings for food banks, as polling stations or vaccination centres, but they have shown a complete disregard for the very definition and purpose of the church.

"The church is the physical assembling of Christians to worship God, and it is because of our worship and obedience to God that we then seek to love and care for our neighbour as so many churches have sought to do in this time."

In the claim, the church leaders "hold that public corporate worship, involving the physical gathering together of Christians ... are fundamental and indispensable aspects of their religion," and argue that "in the absence of the gathered people of God, there is effectively no 'church'."

The hearing will hear evidence from microbiologist Dr Ian Blenkharn, who believes the church closures are "illogical", and Christian theologian, Dr Martin Parsons, who will state that there is a "public theology, which is widely held among Protestant churches in Scotland which has for many centuries emphatically held that the Church should be independent of all outside interference in its worship, teaching and other aspects of church life."

If the claim is successful, the Scottish Government could be ordered to let churches open immediately.

CLC chief executive Andrea Williams said: "It's our privilege to stand behind these courageous church leaders who consider opening their churches for gathered worship and serving their communities as integral to their lives in ministry."