Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that regional authorities can prohibit in-person religious services during the coronavirus pandemic, which is killing thousands of people per day in the country.
In a nine-to-two vote, Federal Supreme Court (STF) judges settled an issue that has triggered widespread legal and political debate as Brazil faces its worst phase of the pandemic yet, with the last two days seeing more than 4,000 deaths in 24 hours for a total of 345,000 dead.
After two judges issued contradictory orders in recent days, anti-confinement President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his desire for the high court to allow churches to remain open.
Gilmar Mendes, who wrote the order backing the church service ban in Sao Paulo, defended the authority of mayors and governors to impose anti-coronavirus measures.
The majority expressed support for religious freedom, but said such in-person gatherings are an unacceptable risk for the moment.
“If we want to pray, we pray at home,” said the head of the court Marco Aurelio Mello.
Judge Edson Fachin pointed to the out-of-control nature of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak.
“Every second that passes without people staying in their homes, the pandemic grows. The hospitals cannot treat everybody. Faced with their imminent collapse, we cannot tolerate more risk,” he said.
Recent Bolsonaro appointee Kassio Nunes Marques voted to allow in-person services.
“If a Brazilian citizen wants to go to their temple, church or religious establishment to worship, pray, ask (for support) – including for the health of their neighbour – they have to right to do so, within strict health limits,” Marques said.
Attorney-General Augusto Aras and General Attorney of the Republic Andre Mendonca also argued against the ban.
“It is necessary to remember religion’s place in a democratic state of law, and to realise that (even) if the state is secular, the people are not,” Aras said.
Mendonca, who is a Presbyterian pastor, said “there is no Christianity without communal life” and that “true Christians are always ready to die to guarantee the freedom of religion and worship”.
According to media reports, both men are vying for a court nomination from Bolsonaro when one of the STF judges retires in July.
The far-right leader has already indicated he might nominate an evangelical Christian in an effort to shore up support from an important part of his political base.