• Clara Harrison

Reconciling Religious and Civil Law during Coronavirus

The era of COVID-19 is one which is wholly unprecedented. People worldwide are facing a historical event that may be described as Biblical in its magnitude and scope. Around 20 percent of the world’s population is now facing profound infringements on their civil liberties, the likes of which have not been witnessed in recent history. For religious believers, such restrictions extend beyond practical limitations, proving to test spirituality and faith as many key components of religious life prove to be temporarily put on hold or adapted to the unique context of our times. Places of worship lie empty and religious festivals such as Pesach, Easter and Ramadan have been carried out remotely as rapid changes in civil law profoundly impact religious life. Furthermore, with the rise in religious hate crimes and xenophobia seen over the past three months in the United Kingdom, it is fair to say that religious life is in a state of crisis.


Perhaps the change in civil legislation most devastating to religious life and practice is the prohibition of mass gatherings which was mandated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 12 March 2020. While the reasoning behind such a decision is evident (as a vital measure undertaken to control the spread of coronavirus), such a ruling is particularly devastating to people of faith. It has meant that religious festivals, gatherings, pilgrimages, and even weekly services have been forced to either adapt to social distancing guidelines or face cancellation. The strong sense of fellowship integral to their beliefs and worship have been stripped away, or otherwise limited to the confines of technological communication. With some reports suggesting that places of worship may make the decision to keep their doors closed until the end of the year to protect congregation members, it is clear that the necessity to make rapid, drastic changes to civil law will have a long-lasting effect on religious communities worldwide.


This, of course, is not the first instance in which civil legislation has been seen to impact the lives of religious believers. The official position of the UK’s legal system is one of negative protection in which religious groups and individuals are free to operate as they please, as long there is no civil legislation restraining them from doing so. This leaves scope for civil law to overrule religious decisions where deemed necessary. Just last year, a High Court judge ruled that a five-year-old Jehovah’s witness was to be given a blood transfusion against her parents’ religious wishes in order to save her life. Civil law decrees that an individual cannot make decisions surrounding their own medical treatment until the age of 16, providing justification for this verdict. Such examples demonstrate the power the legal system in Britain holds over religious authority.


In addition to such logistical challenges, people of faith are being affected on a personal level by the current crisis with a rise in reports of racist abuse and xenophobia. A combination of public ignorance and misinformation circulating online has led to increased attacks on religious individuals and communities giving rise to what Antonio Gutteres refers to as a new “virus of hate”. Some fear that such an increase in public intolerance could prove fatal to the already dwindling numbers of religious believers in Britain. It could thus be argued that the necessary civil legislation introduced to protect the public have inadvertently stirred a sense of misinformed fear and intolerance against people of different religions and cultures.


Due to its wider scale and impact on greater numbers of people, the situation today differs drastically from previous incidents where religious and civil laws have come into conflict. As a result, a new framework for the relationship between civil and religious law is being constructed. In spite of the hardships being faced, the responses of religious leaders, communities, and individuals demonstrate a distinct resilience and sense of innovation. Such attitudes are illustrated time and time again through philanthropic campaigns, endeavours to support the local community, and, crucially, the rapid adaptation of key religious laws to abide by social distancing guidelines. The age of COVID-19 should not be viewed as a time where changes in civil law widened the gap between civil and religious matters, but rather a time in which religious law and civil law can engage in constructive conversation for the common good.


Rather than common law overpowering religious law, for instance, today it can be seen that faiths are adapting of their own accord for the common good, as religious leaders encourage congregations to practice religion in new ways that are suited to the “new normal”. Across the country (and indeed the entire globe) religious believers are uniting to advocate for the practice of their faith in a manner that will protect their members, as well as surrounding communities. Campaigns such as the one run by a group of Muslim celebrities in the UK have been praised by the government for demonstrating the possibility to adapt Ramadan practices to suit today’s climate. It is also becoming popular for groups to conduct worship virtually, and allow leniency surrounding the usually stringent laws on death and funeral rites.


Moreover, individuals of faith are spearheading charity campaigns to raise money for the National Health Service (NHS). Dabirul Islam Choudry, for example, has been inspired by Colonel Tom Moore to walk laps of his garden during Ramadan in order to fundraise for the battle against COVID-19. Such adaptations are not examples of how essential changes in civil law are stifling religious practices and beliefs, but rather exemplify the manner in which religious communities are re-inventing their own dogma in order to allow them to best serve and protect both themselves and the communities around them.


Thus, it is clear that religious law is voluntarily evolving in today’s climate to accommodate the necessities of social distancing and support the local community in a manner that displays flexibility and innovation. Such behaviour clearly demonstrates that rather than being governed by civil law entirely, religious law is proving to be adaptable to new circumstances. Religious communities are creating their own guidelines to accommodate contemporary challenges, such as the current pandemic. A new conversation has therefore been sparked, within which it seems that civil and religious law may coexist and collaborate effectively for the common good.