Closing churches and regulating services is unconstitutional—Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights

July 21, 2020. Officials have no right to close churches and regulate services and religious rites due to the coronavirus pandemic, the President Council for Human Rights believes.

On July 17, Valery Fadeev, the Council Chairman, presented a report in St. Petersburg entitled, “Lessons of the Epidemic in Terms of Civil and Human Rights and Freedoms,” which in particular states that the restriction of the work of churches during the pandemic by secular authorities is a gross violation of the Russian constitution.

The full report is published on the Council’s website.

The guarantees of religious freedom enshrined in the Russian constitution can only be restricted by federal law in order to protect the health of citizens and cannot be restricted in a state of emergency, the Council emphasizes. Also, in accordance with the legislation on freedom of conscience, religious organizations have the right to freely celebrate services, religious rites, ceremonies, and sacraments in religious buildings in accordance with internal regulations.

The Legal Department of the Russian Church made the same argument in March when the governor of St. Petersburg closed churches, initially for one week, noting that, “The right of man and citizen to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion can be restricted in order to protect the health of citizens only by federal law.”

Nonetheless, numerous bans and requirements to use disposable utensils in religious services were enacted by authorities in St. Petersburg and the Ryazan and Amur Provinces and other regions, the report notes. State sanitary doctors thereby “violated the constitutional principle of state interference in the activities of religious associations, thereby encroaching on the autonomy of religious associations in matters religious rules of worship,” the report says.

Further, the reporting of religious organizations to the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing is not provided for by law, the Council argues.

The Human Rights Council thus calls on state and religious organizations to engage in a meaningful dialogue. “It is obvious that the pandemic doesn’t ignore churches, monasteries, Sunday Schools and other places associated with religion. But the ban on visiting such places should come from religious authorities, not from secular ones,” the report reads.