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Court dismisses petition challenging church closure during COVID lockdown

During the lockdown, all movement and gatherings were restricted

During the lockdown, all movement and gatherings were restricted

The Constitutional court has dismissed a petition in which religious and political actors challenged the closure of places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

In June 2021, President Museveni directed the closure of all places of worship to contain the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak that was ravaging the entire world at the time. Later in August 2021, Museveni eased the lockdown restrictions but ordered that places of worship remain closed for a further 60 days. Disturbed by the continued closure of churches and mosques, religious and political actors petitioned the Constitutional court.    

The petitioners included Michael Kiganda, head of Glory to Glory Born Again Ministries in Bugoloobi, Asuman Semakula Lule of Masjid Central in Kitintale and Bishop Livingstone Mugabbi of the National Born Again Pentecostal Churches in Nakawa.

Others were the deputy president of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP), Dr Lina Zedriga, Alice Alaso, the acting president of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), Nakawa East MP Ronald Balimwezo and Evelyn Naikoba, lawyer, and human rights activist.

Last week, court presided over by five justices led by justice Irene Mulyagonja dismissed the petition with no order to costs. Other justices on the panel included Oscar Kihika, Margaret Tibulya, Moses Kazibwe Kawumi, and Asa Mugenyi. 

The petitioners through their lawyer, Samuel Ronald Wanda were advised to withdraw the petition because it had been overtaken by events. The judges said the COVID-19 lockdown was no more, and that places of worship were now functioning normally without restrictions. 

When the matter first came up, the petitioner's lawyer informed the court that he was ready for a hearing of the case. He argued that declaratory orders were being sought against the Attorney General. However, the justices informed him that they did not need to go and spend time writing a decision for a case they described as 'moot' and only left for academic purposes. 

Wanda insisted that the case was not only seeking orders to open up the places of worship but also to hold the government accountable for limiting fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. Wanda asked for more time to consult his clients on whether he should withdraw the matter. The court adjourned for one hour to allow him to consult with his clients. 

Wanda returned to the court and told the justices that he was unsuccessful in convincing the petitioner to withdraw the case. However, he said he was withdrawing it in line with the Court of Appeal guidelines. At that point, the justices advised Wanda that he was legally and ethically obliged as an officer of the court to listen to the guidance of the court rather than his clients.     

The Attorney General’s representative, Charity Nabasa maintained that the ministry of Health revoked the COVID regulations, which were the basis of his petition. She therefore said there is no question of controversy currently. Accordingly, his case was dismissed with no order as to costs.

The petitioners had asked the court to declare that section 11 of the Public Health (Control of COVID) Rules 2021 announced by the ministry of Health contravened several articles of the Constitution. The petitioners further wanted the court to quash the president’s directive that led to the indefinite closure and suspension of places of worship and their activities.

They also wanted the court to declare that the decision by the government to allow premises and businesses other than places of worship to operate was inconsistent and not in line with the Constitution. In their evidence before the court, the petitioners indicated that the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda guarantees that every person shall have the right to freedom to practice any religion and manifest.  

They also indicated that the impugned actions of the president in issuing presidential directives that led to the indefinite closure and suspension of places and activities among them prayers in open spaces, outside premises of churches, and mosques allowing other premises and businesses was unconstitutional.  

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