The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a number of acute global challenges. One challenge that faith communities have faced is restrictions on physical gatherings. Countless Sunday services, prayer meetings, weddings, baptisms, funerals, youth retreats, conferences, and many other aspects of church life have been restricted over the past year in order to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Even as many faith communities have sought creative solutions in community care, poverty, and disaster relief as well as through alternative online fellowship, the possibility for faith communities to physically gather for worship and fellowship has been dearly missed by many.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a series of overwhelming social and political challenges, including questions of equity of access to healthcare as well as intensifying issues of global poverty and inequality. It has also led to restrictions to freedom of movement. As a response to these challenges, many have raised the question: “Have the social distancing restrictions gone too far?” Many have questioned whether COVID-19 restrictions constitute a violation of fundamental rights or the right to freedom of religion or belief (FORB).
Global Baptists have been monitoring this issue since the early days of the pandemic, engaging with civil society, other faith groups, and local and national governments to try to find satisfying answers to this question. In the vast majority of cases, restrictions on religious gatherings to protect vulnerable persons in view of a public health crisis represents a legitimate restriction from a human rights perspective. Here we’ll explore the human rights framework for freedom of religion or belief and some of the implications for our faith communities in this extraordinary time.
FORB FUNDAMENTALS AND POSSIBLE LEGITIMATE LIMITATIONS
Article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) states that:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change her/his religion or belief and the freedom, with others and in public or private, to manifest her/his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
Article 18 is enshrined in international treaty law through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of faith all across the globe have experienced some level of restrictions on gathering, worshiping together, and serving their communities. How is this possible when the right to manifest a religion or belief, in private or public, alone or with others, is enshrined in international human rights law?
The answer to this question lies in provisions within the human rights framework for the legitimate limitations of some aspects of the right to freedom of religion or belief under exceptional circumstances. Article 18 is divided between absolute or non-derogable rights which cannot be restricted under any circumstances, and other rights that may, under the most limited of circumstances, temporarily be restricted. Put simply, the right to confess or identify with your faith (for example: to confess your faith in Jesus Christ or to be a Christian) cannot be restricted under any circumstances; such a right is non-derogable. The right to manifest religious belief (for example: the right to express your faith in public, corporate worship) can however be restricted under a very limited set of circumstances. Any potential restriction to the manifestation of religious belief must fulfill all of the following four criteria. A proposed restriction must:
- Be provided for in existing law.
- Be necessary to protect:
- Public safety
- Public order or morals
- Rights and freedoms of others
- Be non-discriminatory.
- Be proportionate to the situation.
A restriction on religious gathering is then permissible if the country has legally codified a provision to restrict public gatherings in emergency situations that constitute a major threat to public health or public safety, i.e. a pandemic. Further, any such restrictions must be non-discriminatory, that is the restrictions must apply equally to all religious groups. Any restrictions on the gathering that are applied in a discriminatory way (i.e. one religious group receives exemptions from restrictions as a show of favoritism over other groups) are in violation of international human rights standards.
Finally, any restrictions on religious gatherings must be continually reassessed and adapted in proportion to the threat. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, if the threat level lowers, then restrictions should be loosened. Further, if the threat is nearly entirely removed, then the restrictions on gathering should also be removed. To reiterate, any restriction on religious expressions in response to the pandemic must fulfill all four criteria. Failure to fulfill even one of the above criteria would render restrictions illegitimate by international human rights standards.
LOOKING BACK: Examples and Approaches from the European Context
The first wave of lockdowns to protect against the COVID-19 threat hit Europe in March 2020. Schools, offices, non-essential shops, indoor gatherings, public life, and religious services all but came to a halt in the hopes of limiting the spread of the virus and preventing hospitals and medical care providers from being overwhelmed. Restrictions were gradually loosened in Europe during the late spring and early summer as the infection rates waned. In Germany, for example, religious services were forbidden in the first lockdown in the spring but allowed during the summer under specific hygiene regulations. An April decision from the German Constitutional Court indicated that blanket prohibitions on religious services, even in response to a public health crisis, are not compatible with fundamental rights guaranteed by the German constitution.Measures made to protect public health should not constitute an all-out ban on religious gatherings in Germany. In reflection of this decision and in contrast to the previous lockdown, religious gatherings are still allowed in Germany during the second “lockdown,” which began in November 2020, was made stricter before Christmas, and remained in effect until the spring of 2021.
In the spring of 2020, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) Working Group on Human Rights produced a position paper, addressing issues of freedom of religion or belief during the COVID-19 crisis. The group assessed the restrictions on religious gatherings as in-line with international human rights standards and encouraged religious communities to cooperate with public health authorities while also defending the rights of individuals and communities to question protocols through the appropriate channels, should they suspect they doubt the legality of any of the measures. CEC indicated that “to do so, is not a sign of a lack of solidarity, but of the exercise of another fundamental right – that of legal protection.” Indeed, even with all of the difficulties, there have been countless stories of faith communities demonstrating solidarity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, both in their cooperation with protocols intended to protect public health as well as their willingness to support the sick, marginalized, and vulnerable persons impacted by the pandemic. Baptists have been among the voices calling for justice in global vaccine distribution as well as in providing crisis relief for those affected by earthquakes in Croatia, the explosions in Beirut, and refugees and asylum-seekers living in vulnerable circumstances in Turkey and the Balkans. The danger in all of these crises has only been intensified by the ongoing pandemic conditions.
LOOKING FORWARD IN HOPE
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes. We have lost many to this illness. Many more have suffered emotionally, spiritually, financially, and socially as a result of the isolation caused by the largely necessary social distancing protocols. The civil and political rights that we hold so dear, and that some were previously lucky enough to take for granted, were suddenly temporarily restricted in order to prevent a deadly, exponential spread of the virus. Many asked if their rights, including their right to religious freedom, were being violated while also worrying about the rights of their brothers and sisters in faith across the globe. It seems, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic was not used as a pretext to restrict freedom of religion or belief in all but the rarest of cases. The majority of restrictions on public gatherings seem to have fallen under the purview of legitimate limitations to collective worship in view of a grave public health threat.
Still, we have seen Baptists pose reasonable questions to their governments about the justice and proportionality of certain COVID-19 measures; such questioning should not only be seen as permissible but vital to the health of a democratic society. Further, we have seen Baptists make bold and Christ-like efforts to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
With mass vaccination efforts already underway, there is hope on the horizon for an end to the pandemic. With this, we can rightly hope for a day where we can again gather again in worship and physical community. But there is still danger on the horizon. The Baptist World Alliance has called broadly for a just global distribution of the vaccine. Fair distribution of the vaccine in all countries and regions and across all income levels is not only vital from a justice standpoint, but also vital to effectively combat COVID-19 and prevent dangerous mutations. As Baptists and people of faith, it is important that we continue to follow recommended health protocols, encourage our communities to seek vaccination, and continue to monitor the situation regarding freedom of religion or belief. We pray for the good health of our neighbors, we mourn for those whom we have lost, we stand up for dignity and equality for all in the vaccination process, and we pray for a day when we can soon gather again in praise of the God of all hope who walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death.
 To see if your country has signed and ratified the ICCPR, visit https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?chapter=4&clang=_en&mtdsg_no=IV-4&src=IND
 For more information, see: https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/gottesdienste-verfassungsgericht-corona-101.html
Conference of European Churches (CEC). 2020. CEC Thematic Group on Human Rights reflections on Freedom of Religion or Belief during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020. https://www.ceceurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Covid-19-and-FORB-FINAL-20-04-2020-.pdf
World Health Organization (WHO). 7 April 2020. Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19. guidelines for religious organizations. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/practical-considerations-and-recommendations-for-religious-leaders-and-faith-based-communities-in-the-context-of-covid-19
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. March 2020. The Global Response to the Coronavirus: Impact on Religious Practice and Religious Freedom. https://www.uscirf.gov/resources/factsheet-global-response-coronavirus-covid-19-and-impact-religious-practice-and
For Reflection and Discussion
- Do you think geographic areas with the most expansive personal freedoms have been the most challenged by restrictions on the freedom of assembly? Why or why not?
- One of the biggest arguments against restrictions on religious gatherings has been that it is not non-discriminatory, and therefore does not meet all four criteria. Even when certain restrictions apply to all religious gatherings, restrictions often differ for non-religious gatherings, i.e., for stores and the retail industry, bars/restaurants and the hospitality industry, or protests and political rallies. What discrepancies have you seen in your community and how has it made supporting restrictions more of a challenge?
- In what ways has your church worked to ensure equity of healthcare for underserved populations in your community?