COVID-19 Church restrictions justified, New Zealand court…… | News & Reporting

The New Zealand Supreme Court has ruled that government officials did not act unlawfully in restricting and regulating religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The court acknowledged that rules curtail the protected right to “manifest religious beliefs”, but deemed that permissible in a health emergency.

As of December 2021, the New Zealand government limited religious gatherings to 100 vaccinated people or 25 unvaccinated people. Face masks were also required if the house of worship shared the site with other groups. The government’s director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, considered religious gatherings “high risk” due to the presence of the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

Some religious leaders complained that the restrictions were reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and one was briefly jailed for refusing to comply.

Twenty-four Christian pastors and a Muslim imam have sued Chris Hipkins, the minister for COVID-19 response, and Bloomfield, alleging the regulations violated their religious freedom. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA) states that “every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching, whether individually or in community with others, and whether in publicly or privately.”

However, Justice Cheryl Gwyn ruled that while COVID-19 rules restricted religious freedom, it was justified by the need to reduce public health risk during a pandemic. The right to express 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 restricted in the interests of public safety, health or morals.

The ruling in New Zealand is in stark contrast to what a number of other courts have ruled. In the United States, Scotland, Switzerland and Chile, restrictions have been found illegal, either because they violated the protection of religious freedom 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 similar cases winning in the US.

“It’s extremely difficult for churches to realize that they are high-risk places,” Lineham said.

Lineham is not surprised that New Zealand churches have been lost. Ideas about the separation of church and state are less entrenched than in the US, and the right to practice religion is considered to exist “in the context of a set of human rights that often conflict with each other,” Lineham said. .

During the trial, Christian scholars debated whether the health settlement amounted to excommunication, with the state taking for itself the power to determine who could or could not go to church. Theologian Matthew Flannagan, a secondary school teacher in Auckland and a teaching member of the Orewa Community Church, one of the churches involved in the lawsuit, claimed so. He told CT it amounted to a serious violation of religious freedom.

“We were divorced,” Flanagan said. “We couldn’t have intercourse with each other. The restrictions made it practically impossible.”

Paul Trebilco, a professor of New Testament at the University of Otago, disagreed.

“The unvaccinated are not ‘removed’ or ‘excommunicated’ in any municipality,” he told the court. “The number of other believers who are part of a particular congregation with whom they can communicate is limited. They are still part of the congregation, although they will not be able to associate 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 comply at all times to be the church is flawed,” he said.

Ninety-five percent of eligible New Zealanders have been vaccinated. It is estimated that a disproportionate number of unvaccinated people – perhaps as many as 10 percent – are Christian.

The largest churches in the country complied with the regulations. Megachurches, including Arise Church and City Impact Church, put everything online in December and January. However, both churches complained about the regulations and questioned whether the government was doing the right thing in what it was doing.

“While we recognize the importance of public safety and well-being in response to the pandemic and continue to respect current measures, we are deeply concerned about potential temporary and permanent restrictions on religious activities and faith-based gatherings based on the vaccination status of congregation members. ”, says Peter Mortlock, founder of City Impact. “Such restrictions would have a profound impact on the mental, emotional and social health and well-being of thousands of people who call City Impact Church their church.”

Even as restrictions were eased over Easter (though they weren’t fully lifted until September), some religious leaders questioned whether the regulations made any difference in fighting COVID-19.

“I don’t think any gains were made — 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 not in balance with the rest of the world.”

Grant, one of 25 who sued, ran smaller services during the pandemic so worshipers didn’t have to show proof of vaccination. The church also offered online services.

Not all evangelical leaders in New Zealand share these concerns, however.

Grant Harris, senior pastor of Windsor Park Baptist, an Auckland church with 1,500 people, agreed.

“I was invited to be part of the case,” he said. “I declined. I agree with the court.”

COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult, he said. But they didn’t stop him or his congregation from manifesting a religious faith.

“As for our freedom of religion, it wasn’t curtailed at all,” Harris told CT. “We all knew it was a temporary measure. We were still free to worship; we just couldn’t meet in one environment, and we just had to be creative.”

Alan Vink, who has pastored Baptist churches for 23 years, said he also thought the regulations were justified.

“Extreme times require extreme measures,” he said. “Church is more than a Sunday meeting.”

Vink also criticizes the ministers who have sued the government, calling it “great” and “a waste of time.” He said he is more concerned about the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the church.

“In the cities, people are nervous about going back to church,” says Vink. “Thirty percent are not going back.”

COVID-19 mandates – including the requirements for face masks in indoor locations such as shops and schools and on public transport – have been removed this month.

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