The judgment came after a judicial review concluded that the COVID regulations forcing their closure were a breach of the human right to freedom of religion. The judicial review, launched by a group of 27 church leaders, argued that the Scottish Government had acted beyond the scope of their emergency powers. The ruling deemed that the Scottish Government’s regulations disproportionately interfered with the freedom of religion guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. This ruling was issued with ‘immediate effect’, meaning that churches and other places of worship can now open.

In a balanced judgment the court found that while closing places of worship for the purposes of public health was a legitimate aim and justifiable reason for interfering with human rights and the freedom of worship, the action the Government took in this instance was not a proportionate response.

Unlike England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in this latest round of restrictions Scotland has taken a different approach; and while the judgment will make little difference as the restriction was due to be lifted two days after it was issued, it will set a precedent for future government action that restricts the freedom of religion or belief.


Reopening and the new guidance

Whilst churches in Scotland were due to reopen on 26 March anyway, with new guidance coming into effect on the same date, the court ruling has pushed this date forward by a couple of days. Churches across Scotland may now open in line with social distancing measures, with guidance advising a cap of 50 people. Travel to attend or lead services at your usual places of worship is also now allowed. 

For more information on the Scottish Government’s coronavirus rules and guidelines, please see the Scottish guidance for places of worship and our COVID-19 church hub.

When reading the Scottish Government guidance be aware that a distinction is made between legal requirements and government advice; the distinction is marked by the words should’ (for advice) and must’ (for legal requirements). The major parts of the guidance that are legally required are social distancing and the wearing of masks. We do recommend that churches make decisions on reopening and practices based on all the relevant guidance from the Scottish Government.