Law and religion round-up – 7th June

A week in which COVID-19 continued to dominate the headlines – and a church in Kent advertised for a full-time journalist…

Parish councils, grants to churches, and “the graffiti wall of death”

On Tuesday, we posted version 3 of our May a parish or town council grant-aid a place of worship? and binned the earlier one. We did so because it was pointed out to us that the earlier version – which had been to some degree overtaken by events and contained links that were no longer current – was being cited in some quarters as some kind of legally-authoritative statement. Which is all very flattering but also extremely worrying.

We do not have the time to update everything that we’ve ever written on this blog, even though lots of the earlier stuff is bound to be seriously out of date and some of it will by now be just plain wrong. The law is in a constant state of change: higher courts overturn the decisions of lower courts, statute law and secondary legislation are constantly being overwritten by subsequent legislation, and administrative decision-makers sometimes simply change their minds.

So, dear readers: please remember that anything we write is presented “as is” at the time we post it. Obviously, we aim to be as accurate as we possibly can be – and if we get something horribly wrong, someone will usually let us know pdq. But if something is two or three years old, you can reasonably assume that things may have changed to a greater or lesser degree.

Opening of churches in England

Late on the evening of 6 June, the Church of England issued a statement following the Government’s announcement reported by BBC News that places of worship in England can open up for “supervised individual prayer” from 15 June. The Church’s statement welcomed the announcement and looked forward to the publication of the Government’s detailed guidance.

On Friday, we posted COVID-19: further guidance from the Church of England in which we reported that new guidance had been issued by the Church in preparation for permission for churches to be open for individual prayer and for occasional office services. This stated that the government has not yet given permission for the opening of churches. Saturday’s late announcement by government appears to have been timed to catch the 10 o’clock news and tomorrow’s papers.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick posted a short announcement on Twitter, recorded earlier in the evening. Sources in the Church have indicated that it was not involved in the timing of the announcement. This morning the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has issued the Press Release Places of worship to re-open for individual prayer. “Individual prayer within a place of worship is defined as a person or household entering the venue to pray on their own and not as part of a group, led prayer or communal act. They should be socially distanced from other individuals or households”. 

The Press Release also states that new guidance will be published shortly to ensure the limited re-opening of places of worship can be done safely and in line with social distancing guidelines. This will recommend the thorough cleaning of shared spaces, hand cleansing at entry and exit and asking worshippers to bring their own items such as a prayer mat or religious text instead of sharing or using communal ones.

Individual prayer will be permitted from 15 June, but communally-led prayer, worship or devotion such as services, Evensong, informal prayer meetings, Mass, Jummah or Kirtan will not be possible at this stage. Places of worship still have discretion over when they consider it safe to open and may decide to remain closed or reopen at a slower pace if they wish.

The government is following the latest scientific and medical advice around how activities such as singing and/or playing instruments can best be managed safely. Further guidance will follow on this shortly, but for now such activity should be avoided

COVID-19 and caveats

The importance of using current data is particularly important in the current pandemic crisis. In our post A sage appraisal of COVID-19, we noted that all Government information released on 26 May stressed that “the evidence was often complied very rapidly during a fast-moving response and should be viewed in this context”. In the case of the reported SAGE information, the paper on dispersion was discussed at meeting 25 on 14 April 2020 and the paper on transmission was discussed at meeting 29 on 28 April 2020. Consequently, at the time of writing our post, the information had been considered by SAGE four to six weeks ago.

Discussions on the relaxation of lockdown measures in churches are presently in progress, and here too the use of the most recent information is important, as was stressed in the RSCM webinar, reported in our post Music, musicians, and the congregation.

Face coverings on public transport

In his statement on 4 June, The Rt Hon Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport announced that face- coverings will be required on public transport from 15 June. The rule changes are to be made under the National Rail Conditions of Travel and the Public Service Vehicle Regulations for buses. He indicated that surgical masks would not be required; “face coverings” mean “the kind of face-covering you can easily make at home”. There will be exceptions to the rule for very young children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties.

Inscriptions on headstones

The refusal of Chancellor Eyre in Re St Giles Exhall [2020] ECC Cov 1 to permit an inscription in Irish Gaelic without an English translation proved controversial and resulted in a statement from the Church of England, Irish language – an important part of our Church of England heritage. There is a summary of the case on the website of the Ecclesiastical Law Association and our own note on the case is here. On Friday, it was announced that the family was seeking leave to appeal the decision to the Court of Arches.

Church Urban Fund breaches Fundraising Code

The Fundraising Regulator has concluded that the Church Urban Fund (registered charity no 297483) was in breach of the Fundraising Code when it failed to comply with repeated Fundraising Preference Service requests to cease communication with the complainer’s relative – who has dementia. Despite follow-up requests, on 3 December 2019 the charity thanked the relative by telephone for a previous donation, and during the call, the complainer’s relative consented to be added to another mailing list and a further mail was sent later that month.

Dean of the Arches and Auditor of the Chancery Court of York

On 2 June, The Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced that Morag Ellis QC has been appointed as Dean of the Arches and Auditor on the retirement of Charles George QC. Morag will take up her duties on 8 June 2020. The Dean of the Arches (Province of Canterbury) and Auditor (Province of York) is the most senior ecclesiastical judge in England and as Master of the Faculties is responsible for the regulation of the notarial profession in England and Wales and some overseas jurisdictions. The appointment is made jointly by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with the approval of Her Majesty the Queen.

Commenting on the announcement, Head of Francis Taylor Building Chambers, Andrew Tait QC, said “this is wonderful news for Morag and for Chambers. We are thrilled that Morag will succeed our former members Charles George QC, who held the position from 2009 to 2020, and Dr Sheila Cameron CBE QC, who held the position from 2001 to 2009”. Morag Ellis QC will continue in practice at Francis Taylor Building, although she can no longer be instructed in cases involving the faculty jurisdiction or clergy discipline”.

Abortion in Northern Ireland

Under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, which were made by the UK Parliament, there is no time limit on abortion in Northern Ireland in the case of “severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality”. On Tuesday, four DUP MLAs brought forward a motion at Stormont rejecting “the imposition of abortion legislation which extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome”; it was passed by 46-40 with support from SDLP and UUP MLAs. However, the vote was entirely symbolic: it has no effect on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Oaths in the Oireachtas

The Irish Times reports that the ECtHR is considering a case taken by two TDs and others that before taking office, the President and members of the Council of State must swear a declaration “in the presence of almighty God”. According to the report, the applicants argue that Articles 12.8 and 31.4 of the Constitution effectively exclude conscientious non-Christians, non-believers and those who do not wish to violate their consciences from the Presidency and the Council of State.

The Court has decided to write to the Government to give notice of the complaints about the declarations and asked the parties to consider two questions: whether the applicants can claim to be “victims” within the meaning of Article 34 ECHR of the alleged violation of Article 9(1) and whether the requirements of Articles 12.8 and 31.4 of the Constitution breach the applicants’ Article 9 rights. The parties have until November 25th next to discuss the terms of a “friendly settlement”, without prejudgment of the outcome of the case should the negotiations prove unsuccessful.

Which is all very reminiscent of Buscarini and Others v San Marino 24645/94 [1999] ECHR 7.

Quick links

And finally…

On 3 May, No 10 announced that “The Queen has approved that the Reverend Canon Doctor Amanda (Mandy) Ford be appointed Dean of Bristol”. Canon lawyers on Twitter promptly queried the use of the style “The Reverend Canon Doctor…”.

1 thought on “Law and religion round-up – 7th June

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