Inconsistent restrictions undermine sacred freedoms

sacred freedoms

Unprecedented times have led to previously unseen disruptions for Christian congregations across New Zealand.

COVID-19 has not only greatly impacted our economy and daily lives but has also altered our patterns of worship, fellowship, and faith.

We should all feel proud of the success we have been able to achieve together during this crisis.

However, I grow increasingly concerned at the Government’s continued presumption on the cooperation of communities of faith.

Under Level 2 the Prime Minister said that congregations of up to 100 people should be allowed to gather for worship provided they follow strict social distancing and hygiene rules.

This was then dramatically changed to 10 providing much uncertainty for faith communities in New Zealand – something I have been challenging.

This is not because I believe Christians cannot authentically worship remotely or because I don’t understand that we must remain vigilant in order that we don’t have further outbreaks.

I do.

I’m concerned by the direction the Government is taking for three key reasons:

  • the Government’s restrictions are inconsistent,
  • the legislation they have passed excluded the recognition of New Zealander’s freedom of religion, and
  • because Police guidance recognised that faith communities should be allowed to meet with up to 100 people, guidance which is inconsistent with what the Prime Minister has said.

I am now calling on the Prime Minister to address these concerns and ensure that all guidance is consistent with the law of the land.

Let me address each of these points separately.

Firstly, the fact that bars and clubs are allowed to operate under our current restrictions, in addition to sports events and other activities in which it is arguably impossible to ensure social distancing, but not faith communities, highlights a troubling double standard.

Churches are perhaps uniquely placed to ensure that those that gather together as part of that community abide by necessary health precautions.

I fail to understand in any way why this vital component of many New Zealander’s lives is still being denied under Level 2, when so many other larger gatherings are permitted.

This inconsistency is particularly concerning in light of my second reason.

The second reason for my concerns is that advice provided to the Government by Andrew Little, the Acting Attorney-General, listed freedoms found in the New Zealand Bill of Rights, but failed to mention the freedom of religion in any way.

Either great incompetence or malevolence would leave out New Zealander’s freedom of religion like this.

Such a substantial oversight, along with the inconsistent treatment of religious gatherings compared to other social gatherings, leads me to believe the Government is not giving adequate recognition to New Zealanders of faith.

Finally, Policing Guidelines, dated 15 May, which instruct officers on how to conduct themselves under Level 2 recognised the fact that the COVID-19 Public Health legislation did not prohibit congregations gathering for worship under 100 people.

Our police are authorised to ensure that legislation which is passed by Parliament is followed.

Yet, if they believe the law does not prohibit worshippers gathering, why does the Prime Minister continue to mischaracterise the restrictions in place?

The main reason communities of faith gather together is not to socialise.

Rather, faith communities gather for worship, something the Prime Minister fails to recognise.

The ongoing lack of recognition of communities of faith by not allowing them to meet threatens the most sacred element of many people’s lives, and undermines sacrosanct freedoms on which New Zealand has been built.

I will continue to call for the Government to clarify these rules further.

  • Simeon Brown is the member of Parliament for Pakuranga.
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