COVID-19 and places of worship in Scotland
In reply to a question as to whether it is a legal requirement to wear a face mask in places of worship when COVID-19 restrictions are at level zero, the Minister for Equalities and Older People, Christina McKelvie, replied as follows
“Through The Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, face coverings remain a mandatory legal requirement at all protection levels including at level zero, in most indoor public places and indoor communal spaces, including places of worship. On 13 July 2021, the First Minister said that the mandatory wearing of face coverings will remain in place for some time to come, stressing that they provide added protection to the population and assurance to those who are at the highest risk. Further guidance and information on the wearing of face coverings can be found at Coronavirus (COVID-19): face coverings guidance. Since 31 May 2021, congregational singing and chanting have been permitted in places of worship at protection levels one and zero, subject to a risk assessment and mitigations including use of face coverings and physical distancing. From 19 July 2021, the whole of Scotland moved to level zero. Details of all the measures intended to help places of worship operate safely can be found at Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for the safe use of places of worship. Scottish Government officials continue to work with faith and belief groups as we prepare to move beyond level zero.”
The Scottish Government confirmed that the legal requirement for physical distancing and limits on gatherings will be removed on 9 August when all venues across Scotland are able to reopen, though some protective measures, such as the use of face coverings indoors and the collection of contact details as part of Test and Protect, will stay in place.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Requirements) (Scotland) Regulations 2021, SSI 2021/227 come into force on 9 August and extracts relevant to places of worship are summarized here.
COVID-19 in Wales
The Welsh Government announced further relaxations as Wales moved to Alert Level Zero yesterday, 7 August. There are now no legal limits on the number of people who can meet, whether in private homes, public places or at events, and all businesses and premises may be open. However, the Welsh Government says that “we have not yet reached a position where we can remove all protections” and it is therefore retaining some key rules in law: I
- Businesses, employers and other organisations must continue to undertake a specific COVID-19 risk assessment and take reasonable measures to minimise exposure to COVID-19 and the possibility of it spreading.
- Everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must continue to self-isolate for 10 days, as must anyone aged 18 or over and not fully vaccinated who is a close contact of someone who has tested positive.
- Adults and children over 12 must continue to wear face-coverings in indoor public places, with the exception of hospitality settings such as restaurants, pubs, cafes or nightclubs.
The Church in Wales published updated guidance, extracts of which are reproduced in COVID-19: Church in Wales update for Alert Level Zero. This will be followed by advice from the Representative Body, specific to the Church, on how to develop risk assessments in this new environment.
COVID-19 and the NHS App
Further to our 23 July post Vaccine passports and places of worship, on 5 August the NHS updated Using the NHS COVID Pass including advice on Should my organisation use the NHS COVID Pass? This indicates that the use of the NHS COVID Pass is voluntary for individual organisations, although its use is encouraged “in facilities or events where people are likely to be in close proximity to a large number of people from other households for a sustained period of time”. It appears that places of worship would not readily fall within any of the broad categories described.
ECHR Protocol No. 15
Protocol No. 15 to the ECHR came into force on 1 August. Article 1 adds a new recital to the end of the Preamble to the Convention, as follows:
“Affirming that the High Contracting Parties, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, have the primary responsibility to secure the rights and freedoms defined in this Convention and the Protocols thereto, and that in doing so they enjoy a margin of appreciation, subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights established by this Convention.”
The other changes introduced by Protocol No. 15 aim to address inefficiencies in the ECtHR by shortening the time limit for applications and ensuring that all applications have been properly considered by domestic courts. Additionally, it will modify rules regarding the appointment and retirement of judges of the Court to enable them to serve for a full nine-year term and provide continuity.
Religious beliefs and withdrawal of life-support
In June, we reported briefly on the judgment in Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust v Fixsler & Ors  EWHC 1426 (Fam). The parents of Alta Fixsler, a two-year-old born with catastrophic brain injury who is on life support at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, contested the Trust’s application to the Court to discontinue her treatment. The Fixslers are Chasidic Jews and Israeli citizens, and they sought to take Alta to Israel for continued treatment and the exploration of long-term ventilation at home in Israel in due course. MacDonald J concluded that it would be in her best interests for life-sustaining medical treatment to be withdrawn and for the Trust to implement a palliative care regime and granted the Trust’s application. The UK Human Rights Blog has a long note on the case, here.
On Thursday, The Guardian reported that the Fixslers’ appeal to the ECtHR had been unsuccessful. In a letter sent to the Fixslers on Monday evening, the ECHR said it rejected their appeal and agreed with the UK court’s decision to allow the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment and place Alta on end-of-life care.
IICSA 16th Report
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse will publish its 16th investigation report, Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings, on the Inquiry’s website at midday on Thursday 2 September. It is based on 16 days of public hearings held during March, May and August last year. The Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings investigation examined child protection policies and safeguarding cultures in religious organisations in England and Wales, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Nonconformist Christian denominations.
- Council of Europe: The European Convention on Human Rights: A living instrument (August 2021).
- ECtHR: Practical Guide on Admissibility Criteria (updated August 2021).
- ECtHR: Guide on Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights: Right to an effective remedy (updated April 2021).
- ECtHR: Key Cases of the European Court of Human Rights (1st and 2nd quarters 2021).
- Frances Godden, Ecclesiastical Law Society: Summer Newsletter.
- Toby Helm, Donna Ferguson & Mark Townsend, The Observer: Births, marriages and deaths left unregistered after systems failure: which is no great surprise.
- Massimo Introvigne, Bitter Winter: Jehovah’s Witnesses: A Strange Norwegian Decision: “A Norwegian court ‘annulled’ an ecclesiastical decision disfellowshipping a woman.”
- Andrea Pin, Canopy Forum: The EU needs an RFRA: The leftovers of religious freedom in the case law of the Court of Justice.
- Stephanie Pywell, Open University: What’s wrong with weddings?: “Nothing at all, if the weddings are the ceremonies that couples want, conducted when they want, where they want, and by whom they want.” But…
- Lucy Vickers, Oxford Human Rights Hub: Religious Discrimination and Headscarves – Take Two: on IX v WABE eV (C‑804/18) and MH Müller Handels GmbH v MJ (C‑341/19).
For what is believed to be the first time, an Orthodox rabbi has been appointed to an Australian Supreme Court. Rabbi Marcus Solomon has just been sworn as the newest justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia: more here. [With thanks to Howard Friedman.]