Mosques and churches seek judicial review of Covid rules

On Christmas Eve Family First emailed its supporters about a court challenge being brought against the traffic light rules.

15 applicants, representing 110 Church congregations and 2 Mosques, with over 26,000 congregants between them, filed an application for judicial review of the rules in the covid traffic light order applying to Churches and Mosques.

The Churches and Mosques say the traffic light rules are an unreasonable limit on their right to manifest their religion in public with others, which is protected by section 15 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The applicants have filed in the Wellington High Court asking it to declare that the restrictions imposed on religious gatherings are unjustifiable. It will be a fascinating case that will spotlight if the Bill of Rights Act has real teeth.

When Governments use regulations to impose restrictions on important rights to protect us from a pandemic, it is important that they show that the restrictions they put in place are the least restrictive means available to achieve their goals. During lockdowns, I understand the Churches and Mosques were happy to comply with the restrictions they faced because it was important to keep everyone safe and elimination was the goal.

However, now that RATs are available to allow for domestic travel for the unvaccinated, and now that, using safety measures, schools can open with unvaccinated students, the churches and mosques believe the same options should be available to them – a way to practise their faith, safely, in a manner that does not require them to segregate or exclude people over their medical choices.

The Applicants say that manifestation of religion in public with others is not a social or leisure activity like with other social group activities. It is essential; it is a protected legal right like the right to education, like the right to freedom of movement, like the other essential rights that are protected under the traffic light rules.

Religions must be able to assemble as their religion. They argue they cannot do that with separate types of service for those with certificates and those without. It cannot be required by the State to effectively ex-communicate people for their health decisions.

The Applicants have asked the Court to rule that the restrictions the Covid Minister has imposed on places of worship by the Traffic Light Rules are outside the powers given to him by Parliament, and that he failed to take account of the importance of freedom of religion at law and to properly understand the theology of religious practise.

The Applicants all agree that Covid-19 is a serious public health threat. All are committed to the public health effort. All are law-abiding. They are heavily vaccinated; some of the applicants have even run vaccination drives in South Auckland.

Counsel for the Applicants are barristers Madeleine Flannagan and Graeme Edgeler.

The applicants are:

  1. Orewa Community Church, an Interdenominational Church, assembling in Orewa as a single congregation ministering to about 200 people a week.
  2. Al Hikmah Trust, a Registered Trust and Islamic Mosque, meeting in Auckland City as two student congregations serving a total of about 170 people a week.
  3. St Anthony’s Catholic Church, a Catholic Church, assembling in Wanganui as a single congregation ministering to about 500 people a week.
  4. Bridges Church, a non-denominational Christian Community Church, assembling in Cambridge as a single congregation ministering to about 200 people a week.
  5. Three of the forty NZ Pentecostal C3 Churches, suing with the support of their National Organisation. The three C3 Churches assemble in Auckland, Taupo and Christchurch as six congregations ministering to about 1200 people a week.
  6. Central Worship Centre Church, an internationally affiliated church, meeting in Avondale as a single congregation ministering to about 40 regular attendees.
  7. City Impact Churches, a Pentecostal denominational church with nine campuses across New Zealand with gatherings of around 10,000 regular attendees across all locations.
  8. Connect Church, an evangelical Pentecostal church meeting in Paraparaumu with weekly attendance of about 400 people.
  9. Curate Churches, an Independent Christian church with congregations in Auckland, Tauranga, and Whakatane with about 1600 attendees.
  10. Encounter Churches, an Independent Pentecostal church with locations in Auckland, Levin, and Bream Bay, with attendance of about 600 across all locations.
  11. Equippers Auckland Trust, Pentecostal churches assembling in Auckland as four congregations ministering to about 2200 people a week.
  12. LifeChurches, a non-denominational Christian congregation of about 400 regular attendees meeting over 5 locations across Auckland.
  13. New Life Churches, a national evangelical Pentecostal collection of 73 churches serving all ethnicities and community types meeting from Auckland to Bluff, with weekly attendances of about 9000 people.
  14. Papatoetoe Community Church, a non-denominational Christian Community Church congregating in Papatoetoe and serving about 60 people.
  15. Reverend Johnathan Grant, the Vicar of St Paul’s Symonds Street, which is a parish within the Anglican Diocese of Auckland ministering

So this will be a fascinating case.

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