Artillery Row

Vaccine passports can’t be allowed for church

The government seems to think church buildings can be lumped in with pubs and cinemas

As we begin to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear the government faces tough questions on how quickly society should open, and what restrictions, if any, should remain in place.

My focus as CEO of a Christian charity is on Christian believers across the nation. Many are asking what kind of restrictions will be placed upon their ability to meet in the coming months. For large periods of last year Christians have been prevented from meeting in person altogether, and when restrictions were eased we could meet but not to sing or converse with one another. Because we believe it is a commandment to sing and have fellowship with one another, many of us have struggled with this. It has often seemed like politicians don’t understand the faith of those who meet in church buildings and have viewed our places of worship as just another venue.

The use of vaccine passports has been suggested for various places including pubs, cinemas, sporting events and, when asked, Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi hinted at churches as well. Presumably, it would also involve other places of worship — mosques, synagogues, temples and meeting houses. 

Being against vaccine passports is not to say that churches should adopt a careless approach

The idea that access to a church should require some special certification is antithetical to the very nature of the church as a place of refuge for the most vulnerable in our society. It strikes at the very heart of the Gospel message which compels Christians to share the good news of Christ with others around them and offer both spiritual and practical support to anyone who seeks it.

On this point, Christians seem to agree. This week close to a thousand church leaders have voiced their opposition to barring the unvaccinated from their buildings in a joint letter signed by clerics across the UK and sent to Boris Johnson and the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The letter calls for governments to distance themselves from the “divisive, discriminatory and destructive” idea. There is clearly strong feeling against it across denominations and jurisdictions in the UK.

Throughout this pandemic, churches have played a vital role in supporting communities through the provision of food banks, providing counselling to grieving families and opening their premises as vaccination centres. The church corporate has offered spiritual guidance and hope to a country that is fearful and hurting. Churches are not just a holy huddle on Sundays. They are, and always have been, a central part of the fabric of British society. Preventing access to them, even in a limited way, would be deeply damaging.

Others have highlighted the prospect of a ‘two-tiered system’. On the one hand, citizens who are vaccinated would be free to go about their lives. On the other, those who are not vaccinated would be barred from certain entitlements. In effect, we would see a caste system emerge in the UK. The vaccinated vs the unvaccinated. The welcome vs the unwelcome. For churches, it would mean citizens, both Christian and non-Christian, who have not elected to take the vaccine, or been unable to take it for health reasons, being turned away at the door on a Sunday morning. That is unconscionable.

Last month, a judicial review overturned the Scottish Government’s decision to ban public worship

It may also be illegal. Last month, a judicial review overturned the Scottish Government’s decision to ban public worship in Scotland. The court held that this move was a disproportionate interference with the right to worship enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). A decision to effectively ban unvaccinated citizens in England from participating in public worship would surely also represent an unwarranted infringement of Article 9 rights. If the government goes down this path, it could face a similar legal challenge at the expense of the British taxpayer and at a time when public funds are desperately strained.

Being against vaccine passports is not to say that churches and other places of worship should adopt a careless approach to the virus. Indeed, throughout the pandemic congregations across the country have been careful to abide by government regulations and ensure that steps are put in place to make churches as covid-secure as possible. In my own church, we have been meeting online and when in the building we have been observing social distancing. Christians understand the risks posed by coronavirus and are willing to take reasonable steps to prevent transmission.

Westminster and the devolved governments of the UK must distance themselves from this harmful idea as soon as possible. I trust that, given the growing chorus of concern, they will do just that.

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