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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Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

Health ministers across Germany's 16 states are debating the government's new Covid plan - and politicians in Bavaria say they want more clarity.

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

On Tuesday, federal and state health ministers planned to discuss the Covid protection proposals for autumn and winter presented last week by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP).

However, some states and politicians are not satisfied with the plans. 

Under the proposals, masks will remain mandatory in air and long-distance transport, as well as clinics, nationwide. But federal states will be able to choose themselves whether to introduce further measures like mandatory masks on public and regional transport.

States will also have the power to take tougher Covid measures if the situation calls for it, such as mandatory masks indoors, but lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out. 

READ ALSO Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The draft law states that there can be exceptions from wearing masks in indoor spaces, such as restaurants, for recently Covid-vaccinated or recovered people. 

But Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) told DPA that these planned exemptions were not justified because vaccinated and recovered people can still transmit infections. “There are clear gaps in the current draft law,” said the CSU politician.

Dominik Spitzer, health policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament, also questioned this exception, saying the rules “simply made no sense”.

“With the current virus variant, that would be impossible to convey, since even vaccinated people can continue to carry the virus,” the FDP politician told Bavarian broadcaster BR24. 

The coalition government’s graduated plan under the new Infection Protection Act, is set to be in force from October 1st until April 7th next year. 

The powers for the states are a first step, “but they do not go far enough for us”, Holetschek added, while calling for some points to be tightened up. “We need strong guidelines for autumn and winter.”

Holetschek said the government needed to tighten up the criteria with which states can adopt and enforce more effective measures to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Could Germany see a ‘patchwork’ of Covid rules?

Meanwhile, CDU health politician Erwin Rüddel said Germany was on the “wrong track” and the country should find “a completely different approach” to Covid policy than it has so far.

He accused the coalition government of being in “panic mode” and said he doubted the Bundestag would pass the proposals.

“I believe, there will be significant changes (to the draft)”, he said.

But the chairperson of the doctors’ association Marburger Bund, Susanne Johna, backed the plans.

“The proposal for the new Infection Protection Act gives the states sufficient possibilities to react adequately to the infection situation,” Johna told the Rheinische Post on Tuesday.

“The states can take regionally adapted measures to protect people if the need arises. I can’t understand why this concept is being called into question right away.”