Public Worship in Europe: Overview
In Europe, some countries have never banned public worship and others have already reinstated it or plan to do so very soon.
Out of the 15 countries we have been able to observe, only Spain and Poland have not suspended the public celebration of worship. In most of the other 13 countries, however, churches have remained open, as in France. Germany, Croatia, Monaco and Slovakia have already restored the public celebration of worship since the end of April and beginning of May. Other countries have set the date for resumption during May (Austria, Portugal, Italy) or in June (France and Switzerland). Lastly, other governments have not yet announced a date for the resumption of public worship, despite the end of the quarantine (Belgium, Latvia, Luxembourg). The case of the Netherlands is particular because it is the bishops themselves who have decided to suspend the public celebration of Masses, and they are not planning their resumption until May 31. The details of these measures are set out below.
The situation in Germany is particularly interesting: on April 29th, the Constitutional Court of Karlsruhe condemned the ban on the public celebration of religious services on the grounds that the general nature of the ban is unjustified and therefore violates the religious freedom guaranteed by the German Constitution. According to the Court, adaptation to particular situations must be allowed. The same argument could be made to the French legislation that imposes a general prohibition too, even though the health situation varies considerably throughout the territory, and specific measures could be applied on a case-by-case basis. For example according to the size of the places of worship, as it is the case in some countries.
It is now for the French Conseil d'Etat, recently seized, to judge whether the French situation ensures a fair balance between respect for freedom of worship and public health requirements. In this respect, the legitimacy of restrictions on freedom of worship must be assessed from two complementary angles: firstly, in itself, in the light of the health risks specifically caused by a particular religious practice, and secondly, in comparison with the health supervision of other similar activities. The question then arises, simply put, whether it is justified from a health point of view to treat an assembly differently depending on whether it is located in a place of worship or a secular place. This assessment should exclude any consideration about the usefulness of religious worship, since the French authorities are not competent, in principle, to pass judgement on religious beliefs and practices, but only to guarantee their free exercise. This incompetence should thus prohibit the authorities from postponing the resumption of public worship on the sole ground that the practice of religion would be less useful than that of business, or that the nourishment of the soul, as Catholics refer to the Eucharist, would be less vital than that of body and mind. Freedom of religion is highly protected under international law, and its protection is not reducible to that of freedom of assembly alone.
A comparison of European regulations on freedom of religion in this crisis situation is also instructive in that it reveals each country's relationship to religion. The following is, by way of indication, a small overview of the measures taken in Europe, according to the information that the ECLJ has been able to gather (subject to modifications).
Countries that have never banned public religious celebrations
In Spain, despite the confinement, eleven bishops have decided to continue to celebrate public Masses and to give communion. In this state, the bishops' conference had not made any decision on whether to continue the public celebrations, so it was up to each bishop to take responsibility. The Socialist government specified that presence in places of worship and religious ceremonies, including burials, were conditional to the existence of a distance of one metre between each person. However, it seems that some services have been interrupted by the security forces. In addition, as early as 28 April, the government presented a four-stage deconfinement plan that will run until the end of June. In the first phase, starting on 11 May, it is planned that places of worship will be authorised to receive worshippers up to a third of their capacity. During the next phase, the places of worship will be able to accommodate up to half of their capacity.
In the Netherlands, the government has authorized public celebrations up to a limit of 29 people, subject to security measures, but the bishops have decided to prohibit them, except for funerals and weddings. According to a statement by the Dutch Bishops' Conference on 26 March, there would be no public celebrations before Pentecost, 31 May 2020.
In Poland there has never been any question of prohibiting any celebration in the presence of the faithful. From the very beginning of the epidemy, the Polish episcopate invited the parishes to multiply the number of Masses. From 13 March, the Polish government declared the country to be in a state of epidemiological threat and then limited the number of faithful per religious celebration to 50 people. This figure was reduced to 5 worshippers between 24 March and 11 April, and then re-evaluated to 50 between April 12 and 20. Since April 20, services can be celebrated on the condition of one person per 15m², the wearing of a mask and respect for barrier gestures. It will be one person par 10m² on May, 18th. If the church has an area of less than 75m², the number of people who can attend the services is reduced to 5 faithful.
Countries that have banned and then reinstated public worship services
In Croatia, after having been banned, public Masses have been permitted again since 2 May, respecting a distance of 2 metres between each person and limiting the number of faithful who can attend Mass.
In Germany, religious celebrations had been banned as of 11 March 2020. However, following a 29 April ruling by the German Constitutional Court denouncing a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the German Constitution, the Federal Government lifted the ban on 30 April. Germany, as a federal state, is organising deconfinement by Länder. As an illustration, Saxony was the first to organise the resumption of public religious services from 20 April 2020 with a limit of 15 worshippers.
In Monaco, public religious services resumed on Monday 4 May under the following conditions: compulsory masks, one person per 4m², minimum distance of 1.5m between each worshipper, presence of a hydroalcoholic product dispenser at the entrance, as far as possible a separate entrance and exit in the church.
In Slovakia, since 6 May 2020, masses have been permitted in churches with a distance of 2 metres between each worshipper.
Countries that have lifted the confinement but not yet the ban on public worship services
In Austria, while deconfinement has been in place since 14 April, it is only as of 15 May that public masses will be permitted. For funerals, the maximum number of participants has been set at 30. Austria was the first state to decree drastic confinement, which it relaxed as of 14 April.
In Italy, since the confinement, public religious celebrations have been banned, but the churches have remained open. When the deconfinement plan was presented on 26 April 2020, measures for the resumption of masses were omitted. However, the Italian Bishops' Conference and the government signed an agreement on 7 May restoring the public practice of worship from 18 May, provided that the faithful wear a mask and maintain a safe distance.
In Portugal, churches are open but public masses are banned until 30-31 May, provoking protests among the faithful due to the normal resumption of economic activities.
In Switzerland, and particularly in the canton of Geneva, the bishop decided on his own initiative to suspend all public masses between 11 March and 15 May 2020, fearing that he would not be able to enforce the measures recommended by the Swiss Council of State, namely to limit meetings to 100 people at least 2 metres apart. In the rest of Switzerland, despite the proposal of the Bishops' Conference, there will be no public masses before 8 June 2020, as their resumption is part of the last phase of the three-stage deconfinement (27 April, 11 May, 8 June) organised by the government.
Countries without a schedule for the resumption of public worship services
In Belgium, the Catholic Church has announced the suspension of all liturgical celebrations as of March 14. Although the deconfinement was put in place as of 4 May, the resumption of worship has not yet taken place. No official date has been mentioned by the Government. The Belgian Bishops' Conference hopes for a rapid resumption of public celebrations.
In Latvia, all public gatherings are forbidden. Churches remain open, however, and the faithful are allowed to go there to pray, receive communion or confess, but only one by one and observing a distance of 2 meters. These measures are valid until 12 May, when the government will take further decisions.
In Luxembourg, the confinement has been lifted since 4 May 2020. In principle, from 10 May, if the results of the first stage of the confinement are positive, public religious celebrations should resume. However, it is expected that First Communions, confirmations, religious marriages and baptisms cannot be celebrated before mid-September.
In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister announced on 10 May the extension of containment until 1 June 2020. All churches have been closed since March. The Church of England is proposing a resumption of church life in several stages. The first stage is the opening of the churches for personal prayer and online services. Then the second stage would allow certain ceremonies with appropriate physical and hygienic precautions. The final phase would consist of the resumption of worship services when government restrictions allow it.