Sunday, 22 March 2020
Coronavirus Church Closures
Although many pastors/preachers/priests are encouraging churchgoers to attend services despite worldwide advice for social distancing during the novel coronavirus pandemic, is it legal for the government to order churches to close?
In reality, there is no ban on church services, or other religious gatherings; instead the Public Health [2019 Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV)] (No. 3) Regulations, 2020 limits the number of people who can congregate to ten (10).
Nevertheless, the Trinidad and Tobago government may be able to legally ban all religious gatherings in accordance with section 4(h) of The Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago:
4. It is hereby recognised and declared that in Trinidad and Tobago there have existed and shall continue to exist, without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex, the following fundamental human rights and freedoms, namely:
(h) “freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance”.
Generally speaking, this means that citizens of Trinidad and Tobago have the inalienable and non-derogable right to engage in any religion, or as many religions of their choosing.
However, technically, and in very simple terms, “without discrimination” empowers the government to abrogate those rights and freedoms as long as it is necessary and done to everyone for the greater good without infringing upon the rights of any specific religion or religious group more than others. In reality though, this is more of a restriction on movement, not religion because religious services can still be legally conducted with the use of technology.
Looking at a similar point of view from America where constitutional rights are fervidly defended, in Employment Division v Smith (1990), even the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who sat on the Supreme Court of the United States for 30 years, stated: “We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.”
In other words, one cannot breach valid and proportionate laws because of a belief that there is some sort of constitutional infringement on one's religious freedoms.
So to answer you directly: if the decision is eventually made, it will be legal for the government of Trinidad & Tobago to order a complete ban on religious gatherings at this time.