Slovakia: Former EU religious freedom champion challenges 2021 Covid-19 worship restrictions
In the Central European country, bans on worship lasted longer than elsewhere. Jan Figel’ brings a challenge to the European Court of Human Rights.
STRASBOURG · 12 APRIL 2023 · 12:19 CET
The Covid-19 related restrictions to public worship in 2020 and 2021 caused a profound social debate about how governments should balance religious freedom and national safety policies.
Slovakia was one of the countries where bans on public worship were extended for longer, compared to other European countries.
Now a well-known figure in the area of religious freedom is challenging his country’s decision to restrict the attendance to churches and other worship places to as late as Easter 2021. The ban on communal worship for all religions was not in conformity with the Slovak Constitution and fundamental rights, he claims.
Jan Figel’ is the former Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU, a post he held between 2016 and 2019 and of which he was its first representative. His work was to represent the European Union in promoting religious freedom in third countries.
The European countries have excessively restricted the practice of public faith in the last years, Figel’ defends. “As Special Envoy, it was evident to me that the EU cannot credibly advance religious freedom throughout the world if its Member States fail to uphold fundamental freedoms at home”.
Case against the Slovakian government
This is why Jan Figel’ has brought a challenge to the 2021 Covid restrictions on public worship in Slovakia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). “The Court has officially communicated the case by formally notifying the Slovak government of the application and requiring a response”, the pro-religious freedom organisastion Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said in a statement.
The European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France. / Photo: ECHR website.
“Religious freedom as a basic human right must be given the highest level of protection. Everyone has the right to live according to their convictions. Prohibiting people from doing so is profoundly illiberal and non-democratic”, stated Figel’.
“Worship bans are an unfair and disproportionate infringement on the right to religious freedom, as evidenced by the significantly greater flexibility and openness elsewhere in Europe. National judicial decisions Europe-wide (for example in Germany and France) have shown that worship bans are religious freedom violations”, he added.
Fundamental freedoms especially important in times of crisis
Adina Portaru, representative of ADF, said they supported the case against Slovakia at the European Court of Human Rights because “fundamental freedoms apply to all, and in times of crisis they must be protected rather than weakened”.
Both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Constitution of the Slovak Republic protect freedom of religion as a fundamental right.
Only in “rare cases” can states restrict the religious freedom of their citizens, says ADF. “Exceptions must meet strict criteria: there must be a legal basis, the measure has to pursue a legitimate aim and must be necessary to reach that aim. None of the three criteria were fulfilled”.
“It is disingenuous to pit religious freedom against safety when both can work in harmony”, Portary added. “Communal worship is an essential part of navigating times of crisis for many people, and can be done safely and prudently, in accordance with necessary and balanced restrictions”.
The legal case received the support of the Slovak Catholic Bishops Conference, which denounced in March 2021 “the manner in which pastoral ministry opportunities, and with them the exercise of religious freedom in the country, are being curtailed unfortunately exceeds the bounds of reasonableness”. Other members of the Slovakian civil society have also expressed its support for the legal challenge.
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