The former EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ján Figeľ, is challenging the 2021 COVID restrictions on public worship before the European Court of Human Rights. Dr Figeľ argues that worship bans are “illiberal and non-democratic”:
“Religious freedom as a basic human right deserves the highest level of protection. Prohibiting people from worship and communal religious exercise is profoundly illiberal and illegitimate. Worship bans were unfair and disproportionate. Our arguments submitted to the court demonstrate clearly that blanket bans are violations of religious freedom under international human rights law…
“Blanket bans ignore the central role that religion plays in the lives of believers. For people of faith, communal worship, spiritual nourishment, can be as important as bodily nourishment. That’s why international and European law and our very own Constitution holds religious freedom so dearly. I expect that the ECtHR will consider this holistically with a keen eye for the role of human rights in a democratic society.”
His legal team points out that religious freedom under Article 9(1) ECHR specifically includes the right to worship “either alone or in community with others“. The Slovak Government had previously had argued that spirituality could be lived out individually.
The Slovak Government will no doubt point out that Article 9(2) states that the freedom to manifest “shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” and argue that the restrictions imposed during the COVID pandemic were necessary to control the spread of infection.
In short, the issue is about the proportionality of restrictions on public worship during the pandemic. Assuming that the Court judges the complaint to be admissible, we can presumably expect a reasoned judgment some time in 2024 at the earliest.