By James Mulholland

STOPPING public religious worship during the pandemic has placed Christians in Scotland into a “deep crisis” and the Government is responsible of a “failure of candour” about why it closed churches, a court has heard.

Advocate Janys Scott QC told judge Lord Braid that the pandemic has highlighted a “irreconcilable conflict” which believers have between obeying the State and God.

Lord Braid heard that this tension has caused 27 church ministers to instruct Ms Scott to raise a judicial review at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

The ministers believe that the Scottish Government’s decision to close churches earlier this year was unlawful and breaches their right to religious freedom under human rights legislation.

Advocate Aidan O’Neill QC also told Lord Braid his client doesn’t know the proper reasons about why the Government ordered the closure of places of worship.

He said the Government appears to have failed to have considered evidence showing the steps that churches have taken to mitigate the spread of the virus.

He also said that ministers have failed to consider evidence which shows that there is little transmission of the virus from church services.

But Mr O’Neill said his clients are unable to fully know because he believes the Government hasn’t made a full disclosure about the reasons for its actions.

The ministers are seeking an as the petitioners are concerned.

“The Scottish Ministers have presented these 27 church leaders and very many more ministers, church elders and ordinary members of congregation with a deep crisis.

“As Christians their primary obedience is to God and not to the State and there is a fundamental obedience in regular communal public worship.

“Regular communal public worship is a central part of the Christian’s life of faith and of the church’s being.

“And to be absolutely clear this is not about buildings - it’s about assembly of congregations; the sacraments of communion and baptism and the ministry between members of a church are integral aspects of expression on what it is to be a Christian and to belong to a Christian church.

“The petitioners would say that faith is a matter of hope in life and in death and it’s more than mere obedience and that it is essential particularly at a time of national crisis.”

Mr O’Neill represents Canon Tom White, a Catholic priest from Glasgow, who has joined 27 Christian ministers in raising a judicial review at the Court of Session.

They believe the government has acted unlawfully in ordering churches to be closed to stop Coronavirus from spreading and are seeking an order to reverse the decision.

He said that he has a statement from Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director but not from first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Mr O’Neill said this was important because Professor Leitch tells of a ‘Gold Command’ level meeting in which he says decisions were taken about the closure of churches.

But the lawyer said that he didn’t have any minutes or other papers from the meeting.

He added: “We’re told in Jason Leitch’s affadavit that there is a gold command meeting on January 2 2021 but we have no notes or documents or minutes or agendas in relation to that.

“He says it’s so important that he attended it with ministers and officials and it was of such significance it was chaired by the First Minister herself.

“That’s all we’re told about this. But we’ve got no documentation in relation to it. But it does seem to be important because Jason Leitch’s affadavit says that considerations, evidence and data and recommendations informed the discussion and data at that meeting.

“The decision seems to have been made on January 2 and it’s really an important meeting chaired by the first minister but we know nothing about it apart from it alluded to by Jason Leitch.

“Again, there’s a failure of candour quite clearly. What we have instead is some kind of paper produced in the name of the deputy first minister for the cabinet and we see there there is another reference to the gold command meeting.

“Ministers met chief clinical advisors, lead policy officials in a gold command format on January 2 and the first minister concluded that urgent further action would be required to curb the transmission - that decision should be put to the cabinet for effective discussion and decision making - ie rubber stamping on January 4 and the presiding officer will be asked to recall government.

“We see that the decision is delegated to the first minister - all power rests it would appear with the first minister. That’s what we see - the decision has been made on January 2; it is presented to the cabinet; they are told ‘here you consider it and you let the first minister make the decision’, the first minister of course has not bothered to put in an affadavit in this case setting out her thinking and her decision making because it is apparently all down to her as an individual.

“That’s what cabinet government looks like in 21st century Scotland - ‘don’t tell them much but make sure they are all signed up to it.”

Mr O’Neill also told the court that he had the minutes of a cabinet meeting from January 4 which told of how the Scottish Government was proceeding with its plan to close churches.

He said: “It appears that the chief medical officer provided the cabinet with an update - the chief medical officer provided an update on the rapidly deteriorating situation across the four nations especially in England and Northern Ireland.

“In discussion, the following points were raised - the range of restrictions and that the highest priority must be given to full compliance to renewed restrictions.”

Mr O’Neill said there was a note in the minutes which spoke of how Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf was going to speak to Police Scotland about its proposals.

He added: “There is a further note: ‘Mr Yousaf undertook to speak to the chief constable to ensure that enforcement action was taken forward with full speed and rigour based on maximum approach - who says that we don’t interefere with policing in this country?”

Mr O’Neill spoke of how the Scottish Government’s proposals showed that it preferred promoting economic activity to helping people’s spiritual lives.

He added: “‘When we look at it from a religious perspective it’s a state who prefers mammon to God - the banks will stay open; the economy needs to keep running, you still need to go to work but you can’t go to church because those are the essential things and church isn’t essential.

“A democratic state is one that has got to have space for allowing the churches to saying ‘we actually prefer God over mammon; we prefer that space that the salvation of souls is as important as the people in charge.

“What this is about is reminding the government that it does not have absolute power.

“They have chosen to criminalise worship - there were all sorts of other things which they might have chosen to do.”

Representatives from a range of Christian denominations have taken the action. They come from a variety of Christian denominations including the Free Church (Continuing), Baptist and Evangelical traditions.

They argue that the closure of churches is unlawful, criminalises public worship, and goes against centuries old practice that churches in Scotland have authority over their own affairs free from state interference.

The first named petitioner in the action is the Reverend Dr William Philip, leader of the Tron church in Glasgow.

The action has been taken despite the Scottish Government announcing plans to re-open churches later this month.

On Thursday, Mrs Scott read from a letter which had been signed by 500 church leaders explaining the importance of public worship.

It read: “Like the NHS, we too have been engaged in a host of ways seeking to bring help and healing to many.

“We also know that especially in the presence of disease and death, the greatest light of hope for all comes from a higher place than any Earthly institution; not health services however skilled or governments however wise but from the divine hope that is in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

“In national times of crises past, governments have looked to the church .. We urge you not to be the government which denies our nation the collective prayer of our land in days where it is most greatly needed.”

She said that it explained the importance of public worship for Christians. She said that over the centuries, many Christians have died and are continuing to die for the right to worship in public Mrs Scott said that Deputy First Minister John Swinney had said the Scottish Government recognised the impact that public worship on people’s mental health and well being.

She said that he had failed to understand the role of public worship for Christians.

She added: “It’s a matter of disappointment to the churches that their position is profoundly misunderstood and misapprehended by the Scottish Ministers.

“The Scottish Ministers have treated the churches as if it were a matter of personal welfare or comfort. It’s condescending and inaccurate.

“The Deputy First Minister does not understand. The primary purpose for worship is not for social or mental well being. Public worship is a robust central aspect of the practice of the Christian both individually and as a church.

“It is important because that it is no exaggeration to say that over the centuries Christians have died in the defence of the public worship in the church and Christians continue to die in the defence of the public worship in church

“There is an irreconcilable conflict between the obedience of the Christian church to their God or God and obedience to the state. “ Mrs Scott told the court that past legal rulings and the nature of the constitution meant that the state couldn’t interfere with churches. She argued that the government decision to close churches breached those established precedents.

She added: “The respondents have undoubtedly crossed the line into the area preserved by the church.”

The court heard that the churches concerned would take steps to ensure that Coronavirus wasn’t spread.

Mrs Scott also referred to the recent government announcement about churches re-opening for public worship.

She said that the reason why the churches have continued was that they were concerned that the government could once again order churches to be closed.

Mrs Scott added: ““The concern here is that there is a real risk of repetition of what has happened in the course of the last few months.

“We have Professor Whitty simultaneously promising us a third wave of Coronavirus and the churches in Scotland do need to know whether they have a constitutional and convention protection against further closure or whether they have a very serious problem of conscious.”

She said the European Convention on Human Rights didn’t allow the Scottish Government to take the action of stopping public worship.

Mrs Scott added: “It’s not for the government to question the legitimacy of beliefs or the manner in which they are expressed.

“The petitioners say that public corporate worship is essential to the church - it is of the essence, of the being of the church and that is a matter for them.”

The hearing, before Lord Braid, continues.