Germany’s top court rules against coronavirus ban on religious services

Germany's highest legal authority, the constitutional court, on Wednesday overturned a blanket ban on religious services during the coronavirus crisis, saying that exceptions could be granted if sufficient precautions were taken to avoid infection.

Germany's top court rules against coronavirus ban on religious services
In Nordhorn, Lower Saxony a priest conducts a service on April 10th with the photos of churchgoers who can't be present. Photo: DPA

The ruling came after an appeal against the ban from a Muslim association in the northern state of Lower Saxony, which “intends to carry out Friday prayers… in the remaining weeks of the fasting month Ramadan”, the court said in a statement.

Given the “serious infringement of religious freedom” caused by the ban, it was “hardly tenable” that there was no possibility to apply for an exception, it added.

The court ruled that an exception should be granted if “an increase in the risk of infection could be reliably denied”.

READ ALSO: Germany 'certain' to extend social distancing measures to May 10th

It listed possible ways that the mosque had suggested of  lowering the risk of infection, including a lack of singing, masks for the congregation and marking areas reserved for prayer.

It added that the infringement of religious rights was “particularly large with respect to the Friday prayers during Ramadan”, though the ruling also applies to “churches, synagogues and other religious communities”.

Germany introduced a ban on religious assembly as part of its first package of measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus back in mid-March.

Though the federal system means there are some exceptions, most states have upheld the blanket ban, and the constitutional court's ruling in the Lower Saxony case will set a national precedent.

The ruling comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel and regional state premiers prepare to meet to discuss the current coronavirus measures on Thursday, with religious services high on the agenda.

Germany began to lift some lockdown measures from last week, allowing shops under 800 square metres to re-open.

The easing of restrictions prompted calls for further relaxations, including from religious groups.

Yet the constitutional court said that shops and religious services “should be judged differently”, as there was much greater scope for differences in the size and structure of religious services.

Any exceptions should be granted according to how effectively protective measures could be enforced, the size and structure of the religious community and the current risk level in the local region, it said.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: How to do social distancing in Germany

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Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

People in Germany have to isolate at home for at least five days if they test positive for Covid. But four states want to see a change to this rule.

Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

In a joint letter, the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, and Schleswig-Holstein called on Health Minister Karl Lauterbach to drop the isolation requirement for people who get a Covid infection in Germany. 

Baden-Württemberg health minister Manne Lucha, of the Greens, said there should be a move towards people taking personal responsibility rather than the state ordering an isolation period, reported the Tagesschau. 

“We should gradually get into the mode of treating a corona infection like any other infectious disease where the rule is: if you are sick, stay at home,” said the Green politician.

The rules on isolation differ slightly from state to state in Germany, but the general requirement is that people who test positive for Covid have to go into isolation at home and avoid all contact with people outside the household. The isolation period lasts at least five days or a maximum of 10 days.

In some states, and for hospital and care workers, a negative test is required to end the isolation period early.

Several politicians – as well as Andreas Gassen, chairman of the board of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, have previously spoken out in favour of ending all Covid isolation and quarantine obligations.

READ ALSO: Should Germany get rid of Covid mandatory isolation?

The four German states called on Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, to change the rules by October 10th.

In their letter, they refer to Austria, where the isolation obligation has been replaced by so-called “traffic restrictions” since August 1st.

Under these rules, people who get Covid-19 have to wear an FFP2 mask for 10 days in most places, and they are not allowed to visit nursing homes and clinics. They can, however, go to their workplace.

“The end of mandatory isolation has not led to any relevant increase in reported cases in Austria,” the four German health ministers said in their letter.

They argued that much of the population in Germany is immunised, either through vaccination or infection.

However, Lauterbach has so far rejected calls to get rid of the isolation requirement. He said that due to Covid cases rising, he didn’t want to “add fuel to the fire” and increase the risk of infections occurring in companies or at gatherings.

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU), said he was worried about lots of people having to take time off work to isolate at the same time, which could put pressure on critical infrastructure. 

Schleswig-Holstein’s health minister Kerstin von der Decken (CDU), said the adjustment of the isolation rules would be “a step on the way back to normality.”