Freedom of Religion SA (For SA) has approached the high court in Johannesburg on an urgent basis to ask that government’s indefinite ban on faith-based gatherings be lifted.
The application by the organisation is in two parts.
In the first part, the organisation asks the court — pending the second part of the application to be heard at a later date — for an order suspending the operation of the lockdown regulations prohibiting faith-based regulations.
This regulation was published on January 11.
For SA also seeks an order that faith-based gatherings are permitted to take place on terms no less favourable than those published in respect of alert level 1 on September 18 2020.
The organisation also seeks an order that religious leaders are recognised as essential workers providing essential services.
In the second part of the application, For SA wants the court to declare the regulations published on December 29 and January 11, which prohibit faith-based gatherings, were inconsistent with the constitution.
It also wants the court to review and set aside the regulations published on January 11 in so far as they relate to a ban on faith-based gatherings.
For SA has listed the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, the president and the health minister as respondents.
In his founding affidavit filed with the court on Tuesday, For SA executive director Michael Swain said a state of emergency has not been declare, in which parliament would have oversight.
Swain said the state of emergency may be effective for no more than 21 days unless the national assembly resolves to extend the declaration.
Swain said this was in contrast to the present situation in which the national state of disaster was simply being extended by regulation of the minister.
“The present national state of disaster has been in existence for about 10 months without any parliamentary oversight.”
Swain said a complete ban on the religious sector’s right to gather on an indefinite basis, when other sectors of society may meet, albeit subject to certain restrictions, cannot be justified in terms of the constitution.
“For millions of South Africans, their religious convictions and beliefs lie at the core of who they are as human beings. It is what gives their lives meaning and what comforts and carries them through the difficult times we often face this side of eternity.”
Swain said for many, religion was not only a private affair, but intensely communal as they regularly come together to receive instruction in their holy texts, to pray, worship, participate in religious sacraments and fellowship together.
“For many of them, they do so because they believe their holy texts command them to gather and that not to gather would amount to disobedience to their most holy faith.”
Swain said President Cyril Ramaphosa suggested in May last year that religious groups should find new ways to worship.
He said many religious organisations which have the means and infrastructure to do so have embraced live streaming over the internet to keep contact with their members.
Swain said there was a risk of a possible civil disobedience campaign that can only result in more conflict and even bloodshed, as occurred in the publicised Sebokeng incident.
Swain said churches and other religious organisations were satisfied to resume under very strict conditions as the prescripts of adjusted level 3 regulations for other sectors.
These conditions include a limited number of people in attendance, social distancing to be observed, mask wearing at all times, screening of everyone who attends and keeping data on every attendant for easy submission to the department of health if the need arose.