17 November 2021
For immediate distribution
Freedom of Religion South Africa’s (FOR SA’s) long-awaited challenge to the complete nationwide ban imposed on religious gatherings in terms of the COVID-19 Lockdown Regulations earlier this year, will be heard (in a virtual hearing) before the Johannesburg Hight Court from Monday 22nd until Wednesday 24th November 2021.
FOR SA is asking the Court to declare that the relevant Regulations were both unconstitutional and unlawful. Its case against the COGTA Minister is supported by religious leaders and organisations representing 11 million people from a broad-spectrum of the faith community.
“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.”
While FOR SA recognises that the Constitution allows Government to limit fundamental freedoms, section 36 states that any limitation must be reasonable and justifiable. FOR SA therefore argues that the religious community was unfairly discriminated against, and their religious freedom rights violated, when Government enforced a total ban on religious gatherings while permitting other, similar gatherings to take place. Even in the midst of a pandemic, whatever measures Government adopts to meet the crisis, must still be rooted in law and comply with the Constitution.
“Freedom to worship is central to the lives of millions of South Africans”, said Swain. “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”.
FOR SA emphasises that no one is advocating for religious gatherings without proper hygiene, sanitisation and social distancing protocols in place. However, it argues that Government must either decide that all indoor gatherings are safe, or that no indoor gatherings are safe.
“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.
FOR SA is also arguing that religious leaders must be formally recognised in the Regulations as “essential workers”.
“Despite the President’s acknowledgement in May last year that religious leaders are ‘essential frontline workers for purposes of spiritual counselling’, the Lockdown Regulations have still not been amended to reflect this obvious truth,” said Swain.
FOR SA’s application will be heard together with other, similar applications by the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF), Solidariteit Helpende Hand NPC and the Muslim Lawyers Association.
Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is a legal advocacy group mandated to protect and promote the constitutional rights of all South Africans, regardless of their specific religious or ideological beliefs. FOR SA is therefore ideologically neutral and non-partisan in terms of any interpretation of doctrine, faith or belief to the extent that it complies with the rule of law.
For more information, contact:
Executive Director, FOR SA
Cell: 072 270 1217