New Zealand’s High Court has ruled that government officials did not act unlawfully in restricting and regulating church services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The court acknowledged that the rules limited the protected right to “manifest religious beliefs,” but deemed it permissible in a health emergency.
As of December 2021, the New Zealand government limited religious gatherings to 100 vaccinated or 25 unvaccinated people. Face masks were also required when the place of worship shared the space with other groups. The government’s director-general for health, Ashley Bloomfield, classified religious gatherings as “high risk” because of the presence of the elderly and immunocompromised.
Some religious leaders complained that the restrictions were reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and one was briefly imprisoned for refusing to comply.
24 Christian pastors and a Muslim imam are suing Chris Hipkins, the Minister for Response to COVID-19, and Bloomfield because the regulations violate their freedom of religion. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA) states that “every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief by worship, observance, practice or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in in public or on private property.”
However, Judge Cheryl Gwyn ruled that while the COVID-19 rules restricted freedom of religion, this was justified by the need to reduce public health risk during a pandemic. The right to manifest religious beliefs is protected but not absolute. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also signed by the United States, freedom of religion may be restricted in the interest of public safety, health or morals.
The New Zealand ruling contrasts with what a number of other courts have ruled. In the United States, Scotland, Switzerland and Chile, restrictions have been found unlawful either because they violate protections of religious freedom or because they treat religious gatherings differently from secular ones.
New Zealand religious historian and media commentator Peter Lineham told CT the New Zealand churches’ argument is a “direct mirror” of John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in California and similar cases that have won in the US.
“It’s very difficult for churches to see that they’re risky places,” Lineham said.
Lineham is not surprised that New Zealand’s churches are being lost. Notions about the separation of church and state are less entrenched than in the US, and the right to worship is understood to exist “in the context of a set of human rights that often conflict with one another,” Lineham said.
During the trial, Christian scholars debated whether the health regulations amounted to excommunication, with the state taking on the power to decide who could and couldn’t go to church. Theologian Matthew Flannagan, an Auckland high school teacher and teaching member of Orewa Community Church, one of the churches involved in the lawsuit, argued that was the case. He told CT it was a serious violation of religious freedom.
“We got separated,” Flannagan said. “We couldn’t have fellowship with each other. The restrictions made it virtually impossible.”
Paul Trebilco, a New Testament professor at the University of Otago, disagreed.
“The unvaccinated are not really ‘removed’ or ‘excommunicated’ from any congregation,” he told the court. “The number of other believers who are part of a given congregation that they can interact with is limited. They are still part of the community but will not be able to interact with all other members for a while.”
According to Lineham, that was a key argument in the case. The churches had to prove that they were being prevented from being the church.
“Trebilco rightly shows us that the argument that Christians must present themselves at all times to be the Church is flawed,” he said.
95% of eligible New Zealanders are vaccinated. It is estimated that a disproportionate number of unvaccinated people – perhaps as much as 10 percent – are Christian.
The largest churches in the country complied with the regulations. Megachurches including Arise Church and City Impact Church went all online in December and January. However, both churches complained about the regulations and questioned whether the government was right in what it was doing.
“While we recognize the importance of public safety and well-being in response to the pandemic and remain respectful of current measures, we have significant concerns about the possible temporary and permanent restrictions on religious activities and religious gatherings based on church immunization status,” said Peter Mortlock, founder of City Impact. “Such restrictions would have a major impact on the mental, emotional and social health and well-being of thousands of people who call City Impact Church their church.”
Even as Easter restrictions eased (although they were not fully lifted until September), some religious leaders questioned whether the regulations made a difference in fighting COVID-19.
“I don’t think any benefit was gained – it was disproportionate,” said Jonathan Grant, one of four priests at St Paul’s, a 1,000-member Anglican church in Auckland. “I think it wasn’t in tune with the rest of the world.”
Grant, one of 25 who have sued, led smaller church services during the pandemic so believers didn’t have to show proof of vaccination. The church also offered online worship services.
However, not all evangelical leaders in New Zealand share these concerns.
Grant Harris, senior pastor of Windsor Park Baptist, an Auckland church of 1,500 people, agreed with the ruling.
“I was invited to be part of the case,” he said. “I declined. I agree with the court.”
COVID-19 restrictions made things difficult, he said. But they did not prevent him or his congregation from professing their religious beliefs.
“As far as our religious freedom goes, it hasn’t been restricted at all,” Harris told CT. “We all knew it was a temporary measure. We were still free to pray; We just couldn’t meet in one setting and we just had to be creative.”
Alan Vink, who has pasted Baptist churches for 23 years, said he also believes the regulations are justified.
“Extreme times call for extreme measures,” he said. “Church is more than a Sunday meeting.”
Vink is also critical of pastors who have sued the government, calling it “pretentious” and “a waste of time.” He said he was more concerned about the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the church.
“In the cities, people are afraid to go back to church,” Vink said. “Thirty percent doesn’t go back.”
COVID-19 regulations – including face mask requirements indoors such as shops and schools and on public transport – were lifted this month.