26 January 2021
For immediate distribution
FOR SA GOES TO COURT TO OPEN UP PLACES OF WORSHIP
Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) has yesterday issued papers in the Johannesburg High Court to ask that Government’s current and indefinite ban on faith-based gatherings be lifted.
Specifically, FOR SA is asking for the religious sector to be treated equally to [EG] casinos, health clubs, cinemas and restaurants where gatherings of up to 50 people (indoors) and 100 (outdoors) are permitted. It also wants religious workers to be recognised as essential workers providing an essential service.
Its application is supported by multiple churches and religious organisations, representing over 11 million people, who believe that this ban amounts to unfair discrimination against the religious sector and is a gross violation of their constitutional right to religious freedom. It points out that religion, because of its fundamental importance as a human right, enjoys even greater constitutional protection than the economic sector.
“We believe that religious leaders, who have been at the forefront of providing relief, comfort and support to their congregations during this pandemic, should be allowed to make the decision on whether (or not) to open their venues for faith-based gatherings”, said Michael Swain, Executive Director of FOR SA. “If a restaurant owner can be trusted to make this decision, why not a pastor, imam, rabbi or priest?”
The arguments and relief in FOR SA’s application are very similar to cases recently adjudicated in Germany, Switzerland, France and the USA, where courts have struck down regulations which have unfairly discriminated against faith-based gatherings and places of worship.
In particular, FOR SA argues that while many religious organisations are using on-line platforms to reach their congregants, the prohibition on in-person gatherings has a discriminatory impact on poorer communities who cannot afford the necessary data or technology. This severely impacts their right to practise their religion.
“We acknowledge the difficult task faced by Government in striking the balance between lives and livelihoods, especially during the severity of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic”, said Swain. “This makes it all the more important that it treats all sectors of our society equally”.
FOR SA’s application requests – at the first stage – that Government provides the scientific data and reasons for banning all faith-based gatherings during the Adjusted Level 3 Regulations while allowing other, similar gatherings to continue. It also asks, pending the provision of this information, that faith-based gatherings be permitted to take place on terms no less favourable than those applicable to other, similar gatherings, subject to applicable health and sanitisation protocols and social distancing.
“Without knowing the data upon which Government has based its decision, it is difficult to understand why people sitting next to each other in a faith-based gathering pose a greater risk of spreading infection than those playing slot machines in a casino”, said Swain.
FOR SA has previously written numerous letters and made detailed submissions to Government on its dealings with the religious community during lockdown, largely without response.
“We believe that we now have no option but to ask the Court to review the regulations so that a fair assessment can be made as to whether (or not) Government’s decision is reasonable and justifiable in accordance with the requirements of the rule of law, the Constitution and just administrative action”, said Swain.
FOR SA’s application follows on a separate application lodged by the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF) in the Johannesburg High Court last week, which was postponed to Tuesday, 2 February 2021. FOR SA is asking that its application be heard at the same time.
For more information, contact:
Executive Director, FOR SA
Cell: 072 270 1217