Capitol Hill Baptist case- COVID restrictions on gatherings unlawful

Most of us are chafing under restrictions on gatherings imposed by COVID-19 laws. Getting the balance right here is hard, and we want to give the government as much leeway as possible; but the restrictions have been very difficult for churches, and the rules adopted in some jurisdictions seem to discriminate against church meetings in comparison to other activities which are now allowed. These were the issues at stake in the recent decision of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v Bowser (Case No. 20-cv-02710 (TNM), McFadden USDJ, Oct 9, 2020).

Capitol Hill Baptist Church has been meeting in Washington DC for 142 years. In recent days it has been prevented from gathering all at one time by local rules restricting all church gatherings, wherever held, to the fewer of 50 percent capacity or 100 persons. The Church is theologically committed to the view that all members of the church should gather together physically on a Sunday in one meeting. As they usually have about 1000 people attending the meeting on Sundays, they have had to move their meetings across the State border to Virginia, where they have been meeting outdoors with social distancing precautions and facemasks. They would like to meet in this way in Washington DC. Their action against the Mayor of the District claimed that the rules in place breached the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). They have now been successful in obtaining an expedited preliminary injunction enjoining the District from enforcing their restrictions “insofar as they prevent the Church from holding socially-distanced outdoor worship services in which congregants wear masks”- see pp 1-2 of the ruling.

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Clarification of NSW COVID rules for churches- separate buildings

A brief update on my previous post on the COVID-19 rules applying to churches in NSW, where I referred to an “exemption” issued by the Minister for Health relating to weddings and “places of public worship” where there is more than one building on the premises.

The current Public Health Order governing “gatherings” has been formally amended with operation from Monday 14 September 2020 to implement this “exemption”. (For the amended text of the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) 2020 see here.)

There is now a definition in cl 3(1) of the term “separate area” for “places of public worship”:

separate area, for a place of public worship, means a building— (a) that is separate from other buildings within the premises, and (b) has been designated as a separate building by the occupier of the premises, and (c) that is staffed by persons officiating or volunteers or other staff who provide services in that building only, and (d) that does not allow persons gathering in different buildings to mingle.

New cl 9 then sets out the rules concerning gatherings in places of public worship:

9 Directions of Minister about places of public worship
(1) The Minister directs that the occupier of a place of public worship must ensure—
(a) for a place of public worship with more than one separate area, the maximum number of persons in each of the areas is the lesser of—
(i) the number of persons that is equivalent to one person per 4 square
metres of space in the area, or
(ii) 100 persons, and
(b) for any other place of public worship, the maximum number of persons on the premises is the lesser of—
(i) the number of persons that is equivalent to one person per 4 square
metres of space on the premises, or
(ii) 100 persons.
(2) The Minister directs that the occupier of a place of public worship comprised of more than one separate area must ensure that a religious service, activity or event conducted in one separate area does not commence or end at the same time as another religious service, activity or event in another separate area in the place.
(3) Subclause (1) does not apply in relation to a wedding service or a gathering following a wedding service.
Note. Clause 14A(5) provides for the maximum number of persons for wedding services and gatherings following wedding services.

This rule allows a “place of public worship” (a formal “church building”) to allow different groups of up to 100 or the “4m2” number (whichever is the smaller) in separate buildings, so long as the events start and finish at different times. (Weddings are subject to a higher limit of 150, set out in cl 14A).

The only other change that may impact churches is that the residential gathering limit of 20 persons may now be enforced, not only against the occupier of the residence, but also against any visitors who join a meeting larger than 20- see new cl 11(1A). This reinforces the rule but will probably not have a major impact, given that most church home bible study groups would already be observing the 20 person limit anyway. Presumably it will make life easier for police in prosecuting persons who attend large parties at private houses.

Update on rules for NSW churches under COVID restrictions

Following my previous comments on the operation of Public Health Orders (PHO’s) in NSW on churches and religion groups (most recently here), this post reports on the latest amendment to the rules, which commenced operation today, Friday 24 July. The Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) Amendment Order (No 2) 2020 made the relevant changes. There is a link here which may be most helpful, however, as it is the consolidated PHO including all the latest amendments (“PHO4”). In short, in light of fears about the rise in coronavirus cases in Victoria and an increasing number of local cases in NSW, the rules around church gatherings have now been tightened once again.

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Churches and COVID-19 in NSW- PHO No 4 released

Following earlier announcements by the Premier of NSW, the rules regarding public gatherings in the State have been amended with effect from 1 July 2020, in the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) 2020 (“PHO No 4”). This post comments on matters that relate to churches and other religious bodies. For my previous post on the rules under PHO No 3, see here.

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More changes to NSW rules concerning churches

Further to my previous posts on the COVID-19 health rules affecting church services and activities (see here and here), and a paper I presented recently, the NSW Government has released amendments to the previous rules, which take effect today, June 13. This post provides a summary of the more important changes that will affect churches and other religious bodies.

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Guidance released on NSW COVID-19 laws and churches

This is a brief update to my previous post on recently announced changes to restrictions on gathering and movement in NSW (now, in fact, dealing with “gatherings” rather than movement) as they affect churches. The NSW Government has now (as of 31 May) put up online guidance on how “Places of Worship” should be managed. This contains a link to what is called a “COVID-19 Safety Plan” for churches.

While the guidance is generally very helpful, there are unfortunately some inconsistencies between the linked guidance and the formal provisions of the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 3) 2020 (“RGM Order No 3”). It is this order that provides legally binding obligations on NSW citizens, being an order of the Minister for Health and Medical Research, made under section 7 of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW), breach of which amounts to a criminal offence under s 10 of that Act.

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Worship in Coronavirus time- the latest NSW rules

I have previously commented on the rules concerning movement from home, gatherings in public places and opening of public premises which have been applied in Australia while we deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The NSW Minister for Health has just released the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 3) 2020 (“RGM Order No 3”), which commences operation on Monday 1 June 2020 and repeals and replaces the previous orders. In this post I want to outline what the new rules will be in their effect on churches. (These comments will apply in similar ways to other religious groups, of course.)

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Church meetings and COVID-19 in Australia

For most believers in Australia, “law and religion” issues have been interesting but not part of their regular experience. But in this unprecedented time of the coronavirus pandemic, the simple activity of attending regular church services or home groups has been, like much of the rest of life, turned upside down. We now find that our normal weekly gatherings are potentially illegal! In this post I want to review some of the recently-made laws that impact church meetings in Australia.

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