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France’s highest court orders review of COVID-19 worship restrictions

France will have to review the restrictions it created for worship attendance to combat the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Western European nation’s highest court.

France’s State Council ordered the government on Sunday to review a law that limited church attendance to 30 in-person attendees in response to Catholic groups challenging the law.

The religious groups wanted the standard to be changed to allow 30% capacity for houses of worship, arguing that secular businesses are given looser standards during the lockdown.

“The claimants are right in saying that the measure is disproportionate in light of protecting the public’s health … thus it is a serious and illegal infringement on the freedom of worship,” stated the council, as reported by Reuters.

On Oct. 30, in response to a new wave of COVID-19 infections, France instituted a national lockdown whose restrictions began to be eased this past weekend.

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Current restrictions include limits on customers allowed entry into nonessential secular businesses as well as a 30-person cap on public religious events.

French Catholic bishops took issue with the 30-person limit for worship, releasing a statement last week saying that they were “disappointed and surprised” by the restriction.

“This announcement is not at all in line with the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks with the ministers concerned,” they stated, as reported by the National Catholic Register.

“Indeed, this unrealistic and inapplicable measure is completely disrespectful of the reality of the religious practice of Catholics.”

The council decision demanding review of the worship restriction comes as various small businesses in France were allowed limited numbers of customers beginning this past weekend.

As shops were allowed to sell “nonessential” goods like toys and shoes, bars and restaurants will remain closed until Jan. 20, according to the Guardian.

“I hope we will not regret this opening. Shopowners are making an effort, now everyone needs to take their civil responsibility seriously,” said Carole Ichai, head of the ICU at the Pasteur hospital in Nice, as reported by the Guardian.

In the United States and abroad, there have been disputes between religious groups and governments over the extent to which restrictions can be placed on worship services.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to temporarily block restrictions that New York State had placed on in-person worship, calling them an attack on religious liberty.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” read the majority opinion.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State denounced the ruling against the New York standards as a misusage of religious freedom in a time of pandemic.

“With coronavirus cases spiking across the country, we should be heeding the advice of public health experts who recommend limiting large gatherings,” stated Americans United CEO Rachel Laser.

“While the court’s order gives freer rein for larger religious gatherings to occur, that does not mean that they must or should occur. We urge houses of worship and religious organizations to consider the health and safety of the entire community and continue to follow the advice of health experts.”

A recent survey found that compared to the start of the pandemic, more Americans are comfortable with their congregations defying government orders restricting worship gatherings. In October, 34% of adults said they agree with their congregation defying orders, up from 21% in March.

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