COVID, restricting prisoners’ worship and Article 9 ECHR: Spînu

In Constantin-Lucian Spînu v Romania [2022] ECHR 810 [in French], Mr Spînu, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, had been detained since June 2019 in  the open prison at Jilava. From 2019 until 29 February 2020 he had been allowed to leave the prison and to attend the religious services of the Adventist Church; however, the National Prisons Administration (NPA) refused to allow him to do so while precautionary measures were in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his application to the Bucharest Court of First Instance to overturn that decision had been rejected [4-10].

The arguments

Before the Fourth Section ECtHR Mr Spînu argued that he had suffered an interference with his Article 9 rights that had not been “in accordance with the law”. The refusal had been based on decisions by the Director General of the NPA, which in his view could not be considered as “law” within the meaning of the Convention [29]. Article 38 of Romania’s Law no. 254/2013 established an absolute right to move around inside and outside an open prison that could be curtailed only by regulations implementing the law rather than by an administrative decision [30].

Lastly, the interference was unnecessary, disproportionate and unacceptable in a democratic society. The Adventist Church that he had attended had continued to provide in-person services with a limited number of participants who had had a negative PCR test, and access to services had been all the more important to him as it had allowed him to find balance and get through his imprisonment more easily. He believed that religious practice contributed to the reform of people in prison [31].

The Government countered that Article 38 of Law no. 254/2013 provided only for the possibility of taking part in religious activities outside prisons and did not confer a right to do so [32]. The Jilava prison administration had allowed Mr Spînu to attend services at the Seventh-day Adventist Church even though he had declared himself an Orthodox Christian at the time of his imprisonment and he had not provided proof of his conversion or of his membership of the Adventist Church [33]. The decision by the Director General of the NPA had pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the health and integrity of the detainees and of any person likely to come into contact with them and, more generally, public health. The refusal by the prison authorities would therefore have been justified and necessary and would have been consistent with the other measures taken with the aim of preventing and combating the spread of the virus [34]. Furthermore, according to information provided by the Adventist Church itself, services had been suspended during certain periods in 2020 and 2021, the number of people admitted to its church had been limited to 60 and participation services could be subject to prior registration [36]. The NPA and the Adventist Church had agreed that religious assistance would be provided in other forms, and Jilava had been the first prison establishment to offer religious assistance online [37].

The judgment

The Court noted that Mr Spînu had asked the prison authorities for permission to leave the prison to go to an Adventist church to celebrate the Sabbath there and recognised that participation in religious services was an important component the right to freedom of religion [65]. The Court also noted that the authorities had rejected his request; however, that request had concerned only one component of the exercise of his right to freedom of religion – his participation in the religious worship of his Church outside the prison. He had not alleged that he was prevented from practising his religion in any other way during his detention or that he made other requests which were refused [66]. The restriction of Mr Spînu’s  right to attend religious services had to be assessed in the light of the constantly changing context of the health crisis [67] and during the period in question the activity of the Church itself was affected by the pandemic and, in the circumstances, the domestic authorities had to be allowed a wide margin of appreciation [68]. The Court further noted that Mr Spînu had not provided any concrete details about his situation after July 2020, including the manner in which he had thereafter exercised his freedom of religion [70].

Given the circumstances of an unprecedented crisis, the Court concluded that Mr Spînu’s right to manifest his religion had not been breached [71]. Accordingly, there had been no violation of Article 9 of the Convention [72].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "COVID, restricting prisoners’ worship and Article 9 ECHR: Spînu" in Law & Religion UK, 12 October 2022,

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