Pandemic and Freedom of Religion

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Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Free Articles / Published Date:18 May 2020/Last Updated Date:28 May 2020

Followers of all religions have found themselves in an unprecedented situation because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, believers of the monotheistic faiths were unable to celebrate with their own communities in the time-honored way the great feasts that fell in April: the Jewish Passover, the Catholic Easter, the Orthodox Easter, and Ramadan.

The reason is they were prevented by rules set by the governments of many countries around the world to slow down the spread of the highly contagious virus. The ban on celebrations in places of worship is just one example of the far-reaching restrictions on the exercise of many human rights and civil liberties around the world brought about by the effort to ensure that physical distancing effectively prevents infection. In Europe, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been little or no restrictions on religious freedom or other fundamental rights, which are the backbone of our democracy and the rule of law. Many voices have been raised as if freedom of religion had been called into question in some countries. What is to be thought of the turn of events?

For a proper assessment, it must be understood that the challenge we are facing is a serious one for humanity. We have witnessed – in the absence of a vaccine and adequate treatment – the upheaval of national health systems around the world. Outbreaks of the pandemic have led to contagion and death. Severely limiting physical contact and proximity between people has proved to be the only effective remedy, minimizing all non-essential activities: commercial, cultural and sporting activities, gatherings and private celebrations.

La Civilta Cattolica

All this has meant a certain limitation of the fundamental rights enshrined in national and international law. These include the right to freedom of religion or belief, which includes the freedom of every person to manifest his or her religion or belief, including in community and in public, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. A liturgical celebration – which requires gestures, contact, proximity that may not be compatible with security protocols – is not immune, like any human activity, from the transmission of contagion. Moreover, it is one thing to visit a museum or a bookstore individually, it is another thing to participate in a community liturgy: any comparison between the two activities is misplaced.

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While some fundamental rights, such as freedom of conscience or expression, do not depend on social contact, others – such as freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of association – are rights closely linked to community and freedom of assembly. These are the ones particularly affected by the lockdown measures.

Public health is specifically mentioned in the European Convention on Human Rights as one of the very rare reasons for restricting freedom of religion or belief (Article 9). Some states have declared national emergencies, which also allow certain restrictions of fundamental rights under the Convention. Therefore, the current restrictions are legal and acceptable from a human rights perspective. We consider that the protection of the weak and vulnerable is very important from a religious point of view, and therefore it must be balanced with the need for community and communal gatherings. The measures are aimed at safeguarding human life, both of believers and of other members of society. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the prohibition of assemblies, including religious celebrations, should not normally be understood as religious discrimination or even persecution.

However, all restrictions of fundamental rights must have a legal basis, be necessary, adequate, reasonable and generally proportionate to the purpose they serve and the rights they restrict. The threat of Covid-19, however serious, does not exempt governments and parliaments from these requirements. The voices of the legal community and various religious communities have considered whether all the lockdown measures are proportionate. On the other hand, the urgency and danger have required governments to take very serious and far-reaching decisions at very short notice, placing an enormous burden of responsibility on their shoulders. This is the case in Italy with the Decrees of the President of the Council of Ministers, administrative acts that do not have the force of law and serve only to implement rules or pass regulations.

Society, as the bearer of fundamental rights, must therefore be aware that the current restrictions primarily serve the moral imperative to protect human lives and are not used for other political purposes, except in a few regrettable cases. While in democratic states it is always necessary to question and closely monitor government actions, especially when they restrict fundamental rights, this does not seem to us to be the time to invoke a misguided “civil disobedience.”

Bearing in mind that human dignity is more than human life and that human beings need social contact, citizens may still have doubts about the legality of the measures taken. Some measures clearly invite the question of whether they are appropriate and proportionate. In such cases it is always legitimate and appropriate to examine them in order to reconsider and if necessary correct the measures in question. This corresponds to the exercise of another fundamental right: that of legal protection.

But it is clear that, generally speaking, one must exercise patience and good will, observing realistically the rules aimed at protecting others from infection. To underestimate the recommendations of health authorities would be irresponsible. Instead, it is fundamental that ad hoc measures be put in place by governments to enable the faithful to worship in safe conditions on the basis of the state of the epidemiological curve. The spiritual needs of religious communities must not be overlooked in any way, for their values help to ensure social stability and cohesion.

In particular, in Italy, from May 18 Catholic churches will see the resumption of liturgical celebrations with a congregation in compliance with health regulations. The decision is the result of a protocol signed by the President of the Council, the President of the Italian Episcopal Conference and the Minister of the Interior. Similar commitments have been made with the other religious denominations. As far as the Christian Churches are concerned, it is always important to ensure that worship and pastoral action continue in some way during lockdown. The Church, if it really is such, is never closed.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 06 art. 1, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0620.1