By Simon Ssenyonga.
Here we are again, the President has just “partially” opened the economy and specifically kept places of worship closed. In a rather militaristic stance, he noted that whereas other aspects of the economy will be reviewed after 42 days, the places of worship have been asked to remain closed until they have been reviewed after a whooping 60 days! Can you imagine that?
As if that wasn’t enough, the President casually stated that places of worship can use alternative means of expression such as online platforms and even these have been limited to only 10 people at a time. Little wonder he gambled to explain this and he has left this explanation to be made by the relevant minister. The urgency and excited manner in which the President speaks about other aspects of the economy is definitive of his attitude towards places of worship – a mere tool of political mobilization not worthy of urgent consideration.
What exactly do Churches and other places of worship want? The church and other places of worship simply want its congregants to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses such as the much revered Kikuubo, public and private transport, airports among others. From Mr. Museveni’s address, Uganda seemingly already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices.
Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle or the congested and ill-monitored kikuubo corridors but not a pew in a place of worship? And why can someone safely interact with a brave delivery woman but not with a stoic minister?
The State cannot assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings. Uganda has ample options that would allow it to combat the spread of COVID–19 without discriminating against religion.
The President may not take a looser approach with, say, supermarkets, restaurants, factories, and offices while imposing stricter requirements on places of worship. The State also has substantial room to draw lines, especially in an emergency like COVID-19. But as relevant here, the Constitution imposes one key restriction on that line-drawing: The
State may not discriminate against religion.
The Church and places of worship would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on days of worship in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities.
There is no doubt that the President’s address only manifests a glaring display of discrimination of fundamental human rights. Remember, an affront to the freedom of worship is the first, but disguised stage that creates justification to derogate other rights like right to assembly, freedom of expression and subsequently the right to life.
Open Places Of Worship Now, Stop Religious Oppression
The writer is a lawyer.