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How the Irish, and Many Others, Lost Their Religious Freedom to COVID Restrictions

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A visitor prays during mass at a Roman Catholic church in Knock, Ireland, in 2010. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters) Around the world, religious institutions bore the brunt of coronavirus rules. We can’t let this happen again.

In Ireland, you can face six months behind bars for forging a drug prescription. Or for stealing €20,000 from your employer for luxury holidays. Or, until recently, for attending church.

Even in a year that has turned societal norms on its head, it’s surely a surprise that the Emerald Isle, once a home away from Rome for Europe’s Catholics, got into this state. There are few places more steeped in Church tradition.

Until now.

Last weekend the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, reflected that it had been “humbling” when COVID-19 had “lifted the veil” off the reality of the Church’s position in Ireland. The importance of being together in worship didn’t figure as one of the “major issues.”

Ireland, of all places, enforced some of the most draconian restrictions on religious freedom in the world during the pandemic. Authorities didn’t just close places of worship; they criminalized anyone who would attend a service or a Mass, regardless of their willingness to mask and distance. When a rural priest from County Cavan tried to hold a service, police set up checkpoints surrounding the building and fined him for daring to bid parishioners to come to a large, airy church. Meanwhile, dry cleaners, supermarkets, and even liquor stores stayed open for business. It was considered safer to pick up a cheap merlot outside a corner off-license than to take bread and wine in a socially distanced Communion service with holy God.

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