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Durban – Faith -based organisations have approached the Johannesburg High Court to ask that the religious sector be treated equal to casinos, health clubs, cinemas and restaurants, where gatherings of up to 50 people (indoors) and 100 (outdoors) are permitted.
The South African National Christian Forum (SANCF) and Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), said that although faith-based gatherings have again been permitted, it was possible that religious gatherings would banned in the event of another Covid-19 lockdown. It also wants religious workers to be recognised as essential workers providing an essential service.
Its application is supported by multiple churches and religious organisations, representing more than 11 million people, who believe that the ban amounts to unfair discrimination against the religious sector and is a gross violation of their constitutional right to religious freedom. It points out that religion enjoys even greater constitutional protection than the economic sector.
“We believe that religious leaders, who have been at the forefront of providing relief, comfort and support to their congregations during this pandemic, should be allowed to make the decision on whether (or not) to open their venues for faith-based gatherings”, said Michael Swain, executive director of FOR SA.
“If a restaurant owner can be trusted to make this decision, why not a pastor, imam, rabbi or priest?” said Swain.
Bishop Marothi Mashashane, the president of the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF), welcomed the the easing of regulations, a day before the forum was to have their urgent interdict heard at the Johannesburg High Court. He said that the forum’s motion was based on the government’s inconsistent regulations.
“They cannot give gambling and entertainment a preference over worship. It is for that reason in our first part of our application, that our request was to open the churches with immediate effect, the second part is we want the regulations of closing the Christian gathering to be declared irrational and unconstitutional, and we are asking the court to make an order that will instruct the government not make any announcements to the religious sector without first consulting with the sector.
“We have also asked the government to bring all the minutes of meetings where decisions about churches were taken without us, so that we may know who they consulted on the Christian sector” added Mashashane.
He said they wrote to the minister about the need to have Easter gatherings this year, saying the infections would have been reduced as people were taking the vaccine: “We are pushing that the Easter conference be allowed.”
Reverend Ian Booth, a United Congregational Church minister and the interim co-ordinator for Diakonia Council of Churches, believes the restrictions on religious gatherings were part of efforts to minimise the spread of the virus.
“The church is about much more than Sunday gatherings, and conferences. It is about community, and life in all its fullness. The work of the church has not been negatively affected by the restrictions, apart from the opportunity to gather funds.”