French High Court Says Limits on Public Worship ‘Manifestly Unlawful’

Catholic faitfuls take part in a rally to protest against COVID-19 restrictions under which masses are banned in churches, on November 15, 2020 in Versailles, outside Paris, as France is on a second lockdown to tackle the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by MARTIN …
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

France’s top court for administrative justice ruled Sunday the government’s proposed 30-person limit on public worship constitutes a “disproportionate” measure, in a victory for the nation’s Catholic bishops.

In its decision, the judge for the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) ordered the government to modify the limit within three days, for instance by adapting it to the surface area of ​​the worship spaces or their reception capacity, so that the number allowed is “strictly proportionate to the health risk.”

The judge found the ceiling was “disproportionate with regard to the objective of preserving public health” and that the Government “had committed a serious and manifestly unlawful attack on the fundamental freedom which is the freedom of worship.”

Last Thursday, the permanent council of the French Bishops’ Conference held an emergency meeting to discuss the new government restrictions on public worship and on Friday they lodged an urgent appeal with the Council of State. In a statement, the bishops said they consider it their duty to watch over freedom of worship in the country, noting that many members of the Catholic faithful as well as followers of other religions had urged them to intervene.

In his ruling, the judge recognized that the conditions of access and presence in places of worship “must be regulated in order to limit contamination, with freedom of worship being reconciled with the objective of protecting health recognized by the Constitution.”

The court also observed that with the relaxing of bans on “non-essential” activities, none of the other re-opened activities had been subject to a fixed limit on the number of people allowed regardless of the size of their premises.

In an important consideration, the Court recognized that even if other establishments were to remain closed, the activities that are carried out there “are not of the same nature” as worship and “the fundamental freedoms at stake are not the same,” emphasizing that freedom of worship has a separate status and requires special protection, above other freedoms of expression.

Sunday’s decision echoed a similar finding by the Council of State last May, in which it ordered the lifting of a ban on public worship, ruling that it constituted a “serious and manifestly unlawful attack” on freedom of worship.

On May 18, the Court ruled that the absolute ban on all gatherings in churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques, while perhaps acceptable in the first phase of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, was “disproportionate” during the period of reopening.

The prohibition interfered unlawfully with religious freedom, one of whose components is the right to participate collectively in religious ceremonies, the Court found.

At that time, the Council of State ordered that the outright ban be replaced with “measures strictly proportionate to health risks,” in alignment with those regulated other similar activities.

The French Catholic bishops welcomed the Court’s decision November 29, saying in a statement that “right has been reestablished and reason recognized.”

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