24 Pastors, Imam Lose Religious Rights Case As NZ Court Declares COVID-19 Church Restrictions ‘Legal’

empty pews inside church building Bethlehem Baptist Church

A Christianity Today report revealed that 24 pastors and an imam lost their religious rights lawsuit against the New Zealand government.

The news outlet said that the country's High Court declared the government's COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings legal. The decision is in line with the case filed by the religious leaders on the alleged government violation of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

Details of the Case

The pastors and imam named New Zealand's director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield and COVID-19 response minister Chris Hipkins as the respondents in the case.

The plaintiffs argued that under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, "every person has the right to manifest that person's religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private."

In its decision junking the case, the High Court said the government-imposed restrictions on religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic may have infringed on religious freedom. However, it was allowable, given the situation.

The New Zealand government began restricting religious services to 'at most, 25 unvaccinated or 100 vaccinated worshippers.' It added the directive started in December last year.

At least 95% of New Zealanders are vaccinated against COVID-19, with some 10% of unvaccinated citizens identifying as Christians.

Aside from the restriction on the number of people allowed to attend religious gatherings, the government also mandated wearing face coverings in worship areas shared by more than one congregation.

Bloomfield argued that such a congregation of individuals posed a "high risk" of potential transmission due to the presence of immunocompromised and elderly attendees.

In their statements, several religious leaders likened the government's COVID-19 mandates to Nazi Germany. At least one religious leader reportedly went to jail for failure to follow such government orders.

In contrast, many of the country's megachurches reportedly followed the government's restrictions during the pandemic, including City Impact Church and Arise Church.

Also Read: Pennsylvania Pastor Reacts to Research Saying 9/11 First Responders Have Higher Risk of COVID-19 Complications

What the NZ High Court Says

In its ruling, NZ High Court Justice Cheryl Gwyn said the government did not err when it imposed restrictions on religious services during the pandemic. Gwyn argued that peoples' right to exercise religious beliefs is 'not absolute, only protected.'

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provided for government-imposed restrictions on religious freedom when needed to protect morals, public safety, and health. In the case of the New Zealand government's pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings, such restrictions fall under the provision.

Peter Lineham, a New Zealand media commentator and religious historian, explained that he was not surprised about the High Court's decision. Lineham said church leaders find difficulty in accepting they are "risky places" to be for people who are susceptible to COVID-19 transmissions.

He added that people's right to religious freedom should be seen in the context of other human rights, such as public safety and health. Lineham said religious rights and other human rights "often jostle with each other."

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