In Ireland, you can face six months behind bars for forging a drug prescription. Or for stealing €20,000 from your employer for luxury holidays. Or, until recently, for attending church.
Even in a year that has turned societal norms on its head, it’s surely a surprise that the Emerald Isle, once a home away from Rome for Europe’s Catholics, got into this state. There are few places more steeped in Church tradition.
Last weekend the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, reflected that it had been “humbling” when COVID-19 had “lifted the veil” off the reality of the Church’s position in Ireland. The importance of being together in worship didn’t figure as one of the “major issues.”
Ireland, of all places, enforced some of the most draconian restrictions on religious freedom in the world during the pandemic. Authorities didn’t just close places of worship; they criminalized anyone who would attend a service or a Mass, regardless of their willingness to mask and distance. When a rural priest from County Cavan tried to hold a service, police set up checkpoints surrounding the building and fined him for daring to bid parishioners to come to a large, airy church. Meanwhile, dry cleaners, supermarkets, and even liquor stores stayed open for business. It was considered safer to pick up a cheap merlot outside a corner off-license than to take bread and wine in a socially distanced Communion service with holy God.
With the internationally solidified right to worship trounced in favor of one’s right to a spruced-up suit, the Irish government’s religious illiteracy in the context of fundamental freedoms has been exposed. And it’s a far-reaching problem across the global West. In Nevada, citizens were left with no choice but to render unto Caesars Palace when casinos stayed open, but churches had to close. Meanwhile, a young doctor serving on a COVID ward became the “David” of Switzerland in May, taking a slingshot to the sweeping, Goliathan ban by getting the Constitutional Chamber of Geneva to recognize it as unnecessary and disproportionate. They could hardly decide otherwise. Professional choirs were allowed to meet for practice, and demonstrations could take place. Why were Christians ever considered more contagious?
Indeed, millions of others across the Continent were affected by severe worship restrictions at some point during the pandemic. For a society built on Judeo-Christian values, it’s been a stark revelation of how little we think of our foundations. Somebody check on Nietzsche — he might be getting his mourning clothes out again to proclaim that God is dead.
Undeniably, churches play an immensely important role in society. At a time of loss and grieving, who can question the benefit of accessing a transcendent touch-point — a place to find hope and comfort amid despair? But the significance of religious freedom in the midst of a global crisis goes beyond even spiritual welfare. It’s a test of which human rights the government truly values under pressure and which it doesn’t. The right to worship is a deeply personal one. When that right is lost and discarded, it puts the very premise of all human-rights protections at risk. And if, in the global shake-up, respect for religious freedom is proven to be nothing more than a cathedral built on sand, it’s not going to be respected tomorrow either.
If you’re hearing a faint solo over the Irish Sea, it might be a “hallelujah” — after almost 12 months of criminalization, churches reopened recently, albeit at a limited capacity. It’s good news for many. However, the Irish government has never acknowledged that the blanket ban was ever wrong. The next time an emergency hits, it will be back to police squadrons and church raids in another bizarre blend of Exodus meets World War Z. And so a Galway businessman, Declan Ganley, has taken up the challenge of persuading the courts of Ireland to join those in Scotland, Switzerland, Chile, and several U.S. states in striking down the disproportionate ban once and for all.
Christians across the country are voicing their support for the principle. Hundreds have already signed an open petition to the government asking for a commitment that the ban will never be imposed again. Court dithering and delaying has left the situation somewhat unclear. But even though the churches can now open, the courts still have an opportunity to tackle the much deeper issue: Is religious freedom really worth protecting? Did the government indeed violate that fundamental right? And do we need to do better to make sure that the rights of religious groups aren’t left vulnerable in the next global emergency?