Covid-19: Council of State overturns restriction on religion
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Covid-19: Council of State overturns restriction on religion

The Eisenman synagogue in Antwerp. Normal service will be resumed. © Debby Kahan/Wikimedia

The Council of State has declared unlawful the restriction placed on physical presence at religious services installed to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.

Responding to a complaint brought by Jewish organisations, the Council of State gave the authorities until Sunday to amend the regulations in such a way that services can take place in the physical presence of worshippers. In Israel, services in the synagogues have been allowed under certain restrictions during the crisis and services were often hold

The job of the Council of State is to scrutinise legislation at any level of government. Normally legislative acts are sent to the Council before being ratified by parliament, but the ministerial decrees used to implement Covid-19 measures escape that procedural step.

Part of the second lockdown introduced at the beginning of November included the closure of places of worship. The only exceptions: weddings and funerals in restricted company.

The measure was originally supposed to run until 13 December, but was later extended to 15 January.

The timing is crucial, with important religious events during that time-frame, principally Hanukkah for Jews and Christmas and Epiphany for Christians.

For Jewish worshippers in particular, the current limit of five people present at any ceremony outlaws certain prayers, which under Judaic law require a quorum or minyan of ten men.

The Council of State found in favour of the plaintiffs.

The restriction on the freedom of worship is disproportionate because the government has not even provided for the possibility that the collective practice of worship takes place at least – by way of exception and under certain conditions – in certain cases, possibly only on request, stating the place and time,” the ruling says.

The ruling is an interim judgement, and a definitive ruling will come later. However it would be exceptionally rare for the Council to reverse itself, and in any case the question will be moot by that time.

The ruling has the effect of overturning the rules contained in the extension of the measures, making it possible for services to be held after 13 December. The ruling, although address to the Jewish community, applies to all denominations.

Meanwhile, justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD) has announced he will meet with representatives of the religious communities this afternoon to work out the details.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times