The Catholic Church is taking legal advice following the publication of a new Covid-19 statutory instrument that Archbishop Eamon Martin has called “draconian”.
He was responding to a new measure making it a criminal offence to attend certain types of indoor events or gatherings.
The regulations are focused on indoor gatherings of all types, including religious services other than weddings or funerals.
The penalty for breaches of the new law are a fine of €127 or up to six months in jail, upon summary conviction.
The Archbishop of Armagh said the new statutory instrument was introduced and published in a “clandestine” manner.
He said the Catholic archbishops had not been aware of the new law until Friday, when it was published in Iris Oifigiúil, having been signed on Monday of last week by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
This, he said, was despite reassurance to church leaders on Thursday from Taoiseach Micheál Martin that he understood the importance of faith and worship for the Irish people.
“We will seek an immediate meeting with Minister Donnelly and we request the suspension of this harsh and unclear statutory instrument,” Mr Martin said.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, Mr Donnelly said he would be “very, very happy” to meet the archbishops and insisted churches were not being targeted. The new regulation was about high-risk indoor gatherings, he said.
The new regulation, statutory instrument 171 of 2021, which came into effect on Tuesday, is on the Gov.ie website.
Asked about the new law, a spokeswoman for the Church of Ireland said it had been led by State and public health guidance in respect of the holding of church services since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Our existing guidance on public church services is already compliant with the new legislation introduced this week,” she said.
Dr Ali Selim, a spokesman for the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin, said the new law would not change the measures that were already being implemented there. He hoped that the restrictions would soon end.
“We hope that people can come back to their places of worship while adopting all of the measures in terms of social distancing, wearing face masks, and limiting the number of people according to the capacity of the rooms that people are using.”
Archbishop Martin said he and his fellow archbishops considered the publication of the statutory instrument, together with associated penal provisions, to be “provocative and formally enacting a potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights”.
He added: “At first reading [the provisions] appear to be draconian, going further than the restrictions we have been co-operating with throughout the pandemic to date.”
“It is highly disappointing then, that despite the reassurances of the Taoiseach to church leaders only two days ago that he understood the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland, this statutory instrument was introduced in a clandestine manner and without notice or consultation. We consider this to be a breach of trust.”
On Wednesday in the High Court it was stated that the State had confirmed to businessman Declan Ganley, who is taking a case in relation to the restrictions on public worship, that taking part in prohibited services was a criminal offence.
Darren Lehane SC, for Mr Ganley, said that his side had queried whether the State’s position was that attendance at public Masses, other than funeral and wedding services, was a criminal offence, and had been told this was so.
The case has yet to go ahead. It was adjourned on Wednesday to later this month, for further mention.