A group of New Zealand pastors, church leaders and other Christians is pursuing legal recognition that their government's crackdown on churches during the COVID-19 pandemic was unlawful.
Free To Be Church (FTBC) is slated to appeal a ruling from the High Court in Wellington last August that the government was justified in curtailing "manifest religious beliefs" under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act of 1990.
‘No right to interfere’
"Here in New Zealand, we were just branded together with social gatherings that included strip clubs, bars and sporting events," Andre Bay, FTBC chair of trustees and pastor of Shore Baptist Church in North Shore, told Fox News Digital.
"So, the church wasn't seen as a unique entity of people who act according to their conscience. The church wasn't seen as a special, distinct unit."
Inspired by a legal victory in Scotland that saw the Scottish High Court overturn church closures, a small group of New Zealand clergy established FTBC in September 2021 in response to their own country's COVID-19 restrictions.
In an open letter to the government modeled after the one sent to California leaders by the Rev. John MacArthur and Grace Community Church, the pastors laid out the theological framework for their belief that "government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders."
FTBC ultimately sued government ministers in April 2022 before the High Court's decision in August. They have decided to appeal on principle, continuing to seek acknowledgment that what the government did was wrong and establish legal precedent to prevent something like it from happening again.
Their appeal is scheduled to be heard on Aug. 3.
Restrictions have been lifted, but Bay said it is important to remember "the real spiritual damage that's been done to people" by the government response to COVID-19, by which pastors were forbidden to pray with lonely, dying parishioners.
"I think that the emotional and spiritual aspect of these restrictions are so underrated in the effect that it had on our people and on us as pastors because we want to be faithful to our calling," Bay said. "But if you are being prevented by law to do that which you believe God calls you to do, it puts you in a very, very difficult spot."
"They really did ravage our consciences," said Matthew Johnston, pastor of Riverbend Bible Church in Hastings, of the government response to COVID-19. "They violated religious freedoms. They ripped people and relationships apart, which are still fractured to this day."
Johnston noted how the government restricted the size of worship gatherings based on the vaccination status of the congregants. Starting in December 2021, religious gatherings in New Zealand were limited to 100 vaccinated people or 25 unvaccinated people.
Johnston said at one point the government floated the idea of mandating all ministers be vaccinated before backing down.
"That would have, in effect, been a state-run church, where the qualifications for someone to dispense the means of grace would have had to tick a box above and beyond what the Bible speaks of qualification," Johnston said. "You've made a state obligation."
In October 2021, former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern openly admitted government measures were creating a two-tier society where rights were based upon compliance with vaccine mandates.
Logan Hagoort, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Auckland, told Fox News Digital that one month during the pandemic was especially painful for him as a minister.
"I had two elderly women die, one of whom had almost no family; she considered me to be her son," he said, adding that she had no Christian next-of-kin and begged for him to come pray with her in her last days.
Hagoort said he was forbidden by the hospital from visiting her, and she died with "no Christian connection whatsoever."
"Absolutely heartbreaking," he said.
"The next week, I had another lady die – stalwart, godly Christian woman. They would not let me go and visit her in the hospital," Hagoort said. "She was struggling with assurance of her salvation. She was really struggling at the end of her life."
"And so, I had to try and minister to this woman on the phone with ailing health, with her son holding the phone to her ear because she couldn't hold the phone any longer. And the hospital said, ’No, you can't come.'"
He said funerals at his church during that time were sparsely attended despite the desire of many to grieve with other members of their church. He recalled seeing people rolling up to funerals and watching from a distance through their car windows, wishing they could attend.
"This is an abomination, and our governments just pretended like it's totally fine," he added. "They did it for the sake of ‘the good’ of everybody."
"They've never, never acknowledged that they broke people through this system," Hagoort said. "People are still emotionally scarred, including myself. They've never acknowledged that they did that. They've just ignored it, ended it like nothing happened and rolled on."
‘A lot harder to be a Christian’
Regardless of the outcome of their appeal in the case, the FTBC clergy who spoke to Fox News Digital said the anti-Christian attitude exhibited by their government during the pandemic is spilling over into other areas.
According to its website, FTBC is also raising the alarm about other legislation in New Zealand with regard to alleged hate speech and a ban on "conversion therapy," which they say is making it "a lot harder to be a Christian" in the country.
The pastors said the influence of Christianity in their country has largely receded despite the impact on its history and the rapid conversion of the indigenous Maori people after Anglican missionaries landed on the North Island in 1814.
Many who now wield power in New Zealand see the legacy of Christianity as a negative one of colonization, Hagoort said, and some of the rhetoric used during the debates on hate speech reforms and the conversion therapy ban suggested missionaries destroyed the "peace and tranquility" of the Maori when they lived without Christian morality.
"That view, in my mind, is one of the strongest forces in our society that is rolling forward, and is probably one of the greatest detriments to the church," he added.