Breda O’Brien: Government treats religion as whimsical hobby

State ban on public worship is unjust and labyrinthine regulations fool no one

Prof Oran Doyle of the Covid-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory has done citizens some service. In a lengthy blog post, he has untangled the labyrinthine regulations concerning religious services since lockdowns began.

It is alarming that it requires a professor in law of Trinity College Dublin to trace the tangled threads of legislation and regulation. Doyle and his colleagues have been pointing out for nearly a year now, and not just about religious services, that there has been an unacceptable blurring of what is illegal and what is public health advice. This has led, he suggests, to a governmental failure "to lead citizens through the pandemic in a way that respects citizens' autonomy and capacity for reasoned choice".

Since the latest regulation, 10A, was introduced last Monday, various Government Ministers have been falling over themselves to tell us it was not aimed specifically at religious services, but instead, at a variety of other outdoor and indoor events.

As Doyle states, “it is difficult to see that regulation 10A accomplishes anything other than impose a criminal prohibition on religious services”.


Furthermore, it does so in a way that involves “a bizarrely and unnecessarily convoluted scheme of legislative cross-references’”. Doyle speculates as to why it was not done much more simply. He sees two possible reasons, both centring on the “accountability moment” provided by Declan Ganley’s legal challenge to the ban on public worship.

Legal basis

The first possible reason is that the Government genuinely, but wrongly in Doyle’s view, believed there was a legal prohibition on religious services but accidentally deleted the basis for this view. This happened when it removed the prohibition on leaving one’s home without a reasonable excuse, and replaced it with a prohibition on leaving one’s county. The Government had to move hastily to reinstate this legal basis on Monday night in the form of regulation 10A.

Prof Doyle finds this reason implausible. While entering a caveat about attributing motives, he states that he finds it much more likely that “the Government either had to create a legal basis for maintaining in court that religious services were criminally prohibited, or accept that religious services had not been criminally prohibited. The Government chose the former option.”

The new regulation has led to anomalies where it is legal for a priest to meet a parishioner outdoors for a chat, but it is a criminal offence for both if he meets a parishioner outdoors for confession.

As Doyle says, now that it is clear there is a criminal prohibition on religious services, it is time to look at whether it is proportionate.

As a person of faith, I am appalled by the failure of the Government to act in a pluralist fashion

He and his colleagues have primarily been concerned with the bringing of the law into disrepute by implying that certain things are illegal when they are not, thus controlling people through a mixture of fear and moral pressure.

As a person of faith, while I share that concern, I am also appalled by the failure of the Government to act in a pluralist fashion. At its best, pluralism recognises that, by and large, religious and other philosophical worldviews are a good in society and foundational for those who hold them. People should be allowed to live by them unless there is a very good reason not to.

Shred of understanding

In a way, the Catholic Church is a victim of its own failures, in at least two ways. First, its egregious failures in the area of child safeguarding for decades has left it timid and lacking the courage to speak up. The genuine desire to protect parishioners coupled with a less laudable desire to be seen as the "best boy in the class" has left the Catholic Church eager to be seen as co-operative and responsible. The reward has been to be treated instead as irrelevant.

Second, a significant number of the Cabinet were educated in Catholic schools and still do not show a shred of understanding of the significance of the Eucharist for Catholics, much less religious services for Protestants or the need to gather in a mosque for the Muslim community.

If people of faith were half as vocal about their convictions as elite athletes, they might not find themselves so invisible

Since the beginning of the pandemic, religion has been treated as not only non-essential but almost as a whimsical hobby, aside from rites of passage like funerals and weddings, both of which have secular equivalents.

This is despite the fact that faith communities have complied with every health and safety requirement in what are often unusually large public buildings. The excuse originally was that since the majority of churchgoers are older, it posed an unacceptable risk. Now that virtually all older churchgoers are vaccinated, what is the excuse?

Normally, the Government worries about being out of step with the rest of the world. According to Re-Open EU, a websiteof the European Union, we are an absolute outlier in Europe when it comes to the strictness of the ban on public worship.

Funny how the Government scrambled to find loopholes in quarantine regulations for elite athletes. Perhaps if people of faith were half as vocal about their convictions as elite and professional athletes, they might not find themselves so irrelevant and invisible in the Government’s eyes.