Catholic priest pursues legal challenge as Scottish government shifts on public Mass ban

Canon Tom White, who is challenging Scotland’s ban on public worship. / Photo courtesy of ADF International.

A Catholic priest will proceed with a challenge to the Scottish government’s ban on public worship on Thursday despite an announcement that restrictions will be lifted earlier than previously expected.

Canon Tom White will press ahead with the hearing at Scotland’s supreme civil court on 11-12 March in the hope of discouraging future bans on public Masses.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday that public worship would be restored from 26 March — rather than early April, as she had previously announced — as long as certain conditions were fulfilled.

“This is in time for Passover, Easter, Ramadan and Vaisakhi,” she said, referring to Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Sikh celebrations.

A cap on the number of worshipers will be raised from 20 to 50, where buildings can accommodate that number of people keeping around six feet apart.

Sturgeon said: “This change is relatively minor, it is proportionate, which we believe can be achieved relatively safely, and which will hopefully enable more people to draw strength, comfort, and inspiration from acts of collective worship.”

Scotland, which has a population of 5.5 million, has recorded 206,465 cases of COVID-19 and 7,441 deaths as of 10 March according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. It reported 691 new cases and a further 20 deaths on 10 March.

White’s legal challenge will be presented on Thursday at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by Aidan O’Neill, QC. The human rights advocate will argue that the ban is unconstitutional and incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

White is pastor of St. Alphonsus Church in Glasgow. His parish includes three of the most deprived areas of the U.K.

We reported last month that White had filed a pre-action letter with the Scottish government seeking to lift restrictions. The priest is using a crowdfunding site to cover the costs of the legal challenge.

Ryan Christopher, director of the Christian legal group ADF UK, which is backing the case, said: “While the decision to eventually reopen churches after almost three months is a step in the right direction, it is important for the court to decide whether this ban was truly justified — especially as there is a good chance such measures could be repeated in the future.”

Scotland’s Catholic bishops called earlier this month for “dialogue” with government officials over the cap on worshipers.

In a 1 March statement, they welcomed plans to permit public worship.

“At the same time,” they said, “we anticipate ongoing dialogue with the Scottish Government regarding the requirement of a numerical ‘cap’ on the number of worshipers.”

The bishops argued that numbers should be dictated instead by the size of church buildings.

Public worship was first suspended in Scotland on 19 March 2020. Masses with congregations were permitted to resume from 15 July.

The Scottish government suspended public worship again on 4 January this year, although it continued to be permitted over the border in England.

White said: “I’m deeply grateful to the Christian and wider community across Scotland and the whole United Kingdom who have generously given their financial support, as well as words of great encouragement, to my legal challenge.”

“Freedom of worship is a human right, and receiving the sacraments is as vital to me and my parishioners as receiving food and water. As St Matthew’s Gospel tells us, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

He continued: “The court must decide if this right was suspended in an unnecessary and disproportionate manner, in order to prevent further undue restrictions in future. I invite all Christians to pray with me over the coming days, that the right decision will be made, and church doors once again opened throughout our country.”

Source: CNA