- Faith representatives from Christian and Muslim communities in Kampala take legal action against government-imposed closure of places of worship
- Canon Tom White, “deeply concerned” at the “discriminatory” treatment of people of faith, calls on Scottish congregations to pray for a just outcome
EDINBURGH (06 AUGUST 2021) – The Glasgow Priest who was part of a case that successfully overturned the unlawful ban on public worship in Scotland earlier this year has expressed “deep concerns” about the prohibition placed on people of faith from Uganda by a similarly disproportionate ban. The priest has invited his congregation and Christians across Scotland to pray for those taking the challenge forward in Uganda, in hope of affirming the human right to freedom of worship.
Canon Tom White said he had “deep concerns” about the “discriminatory” way that people of faith were being treated under current regulations.
“I send my wholehearted support to the people of faith in Uganda who are challenging the same kind of disproportionate worship ban as we experienced here in Scotland earlier in the year. The court in Edinburgh ruled that the Scottish government’s worship ban was unlawful. It undermined our human right to freedom of worship. Human rights know no boundary; they are universal. The human rights that must be upheld here in Scotland must be upheld for Ugandans too. It’s vital that at this difficult time, all people are able to meet their spiritual needs while also protecting public health,” he said in regard to the challenge in Uganda.
As in Glasgow, so in Kampala: Legal challenge filed this week
A church in Kampala and a representative from the Muslim community have commenced legal action against the Ugandan government’s ban on public worship after new national lockdown measures were announced on Friday. Under new regulations, malls, arcades and business centres may open, with public transport functioning at 50% capacity. Yet, people are completely prohibited from attending a place of worship.
“As a woman of faith, it’s been difficult to see my community deprived of access to public worship at a time when we need it most. At this hard moment for our country, the government must remember that we don’t only have physical needs to attend to, but spiritual needs, too. I’m glad to stand with my church, with support from ADF International, in challenging this disproportionate, unnecessary and draconian restriction on freedom of worship,” said Agnes Namaganda, a member of the church fellowship supporting the challenge.
“For people of faith, participating in public worship is as essential as taking food and water. Under the current regulations, those who want to shop may visit the mall, and those who want to eat out may go to a restaurant; yet there is no place of worship open for those who want to practice their religion. Why are people of faith being treated as more contagious than others? Of course, it is vitally important to keep our communities safe at this time. This can and must be done while also upholding the right to gather for worship,” added Imaam Bbaale Muhammed, who has also joined the legal challenge against the government’s worship ban.
The case mirrors the same challenge that took place in Scotland in March, brought forward by Canon Tom White of St Alphonsus Parish in Glasgow, alongside 27 other faith leaders.
Scotland’s top civil court found that a blanket ban on public worship was unlawful, affirming that any restrictions on fundamental freedoms must be necessary and proportionate. In November 2020, Westminster’s chief medical and scientific advisors had conceded that evidence for church closures was “anecdotal” at best and “not based on scientific fact.” In Scotland, businesses and other public places had been allowed to open, but not houses of worship. Even cinemas have been opened for the purposes of Sheriff Court jury trials.
Discriminatory measures in place throughout the pandemic
The recent restrictions on worship, announced on July 30th, are due to last at least 60 days, after which a new review will begin. The restrictions follow a year of what the litigants claim to have been discriminatory treatment against faith communities.
“Freedom of religion and belief is a foundational human right. Freedom to manifest one’s faith in public worship is an essential part of this right, protected by Ugandan law and international treaties. This right should be limited only to the extent that it is necessary for a legitimate, proportionate, and non-discriminatory reason. In multiple instances across Europe, in the US and in Latin America, we’ve seen similar blanket bans on public worship be found to be unlawful,” said Lois McLatchie, communications officer for ADF UK.
Following an easing of previous lockdown measures in June 2020, places of worship were not allowed to reopen with other similar public places, but had to wait a further two months until further consultations could take place between the Ministry of Health and the Inter-Religious Council.
When the doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious buildings were finally cleared to open in August 2020, they had to adhere to government-enforced Standard Operating Procedures of far greater difficulty than regular public places or places of commerce. Faith groups were required to have a team of trained medical personnel attend every worship service, and security guards to ensure that worshippers remained adequately spaced when in line for having their temperature taken upon entry.
“People of faith are no more contagious than their peers – there is no clear reason why a large, spacious church should be forced shut, but malls and arcades are open. There is no clear reason why faith groups have had to clear higher operational hurdles throughout this year than places of commerce. People of different faiths are now standing up to ensure that their rights are protected in Uganda. The government must find ways to protect public health, while also upholding the right to live out one’s faith in community with others,” McLatchie continued.
A global trend: disproportionate worship bans declared “unlawful”
Human rights group ADF International has supported similar legal challenges against blanket bans on worship across Europe and in Latin America.
One day after the Scottish ruling in March, the Chilean Supreme Court unanimously ruled that COVID-19 restrictions have been applied in a discriminatory manner against believers in Chile. The landmark ruling recognized that freedom of religion is a human right that cannot simply be suspended.
Legal action is currently underway in Ireland, where for almost a year, people of faith were criminalized for attending public worship. Leaving one’s home to attend a worship service could have incurred a potential penalty of a fine, or up to six months in prison. To find out more, visit www.letusworship.global/ireland.