RIGHTS AND FREEDOM: Pastors Andre and Wahia Nicholas of Whakatane Destiny Church held their first service at Whakatane’s Destiny Church on Sunday. Photo supplied

THE controversial Covid-19 Health Response Bill passed into law last week has been a point of contention for religious leaders in the Eastern Bay.

Forbidding large religious congregations from gathering by imposing a 10-person limit has been termed “discrimination and unlawful”.

However, internal police guidelines released on Wednesday, say places of workshop can have up to 100 people under alert level two for religious services, creating some confusion.

Destiny Church Whakatane Pastor Andre Nicholas said Destiny Church was not happy with how quickly the bill had been pushed through and the limitations imposed on the church.

It was discrimination, he said.

The bill did not stop Destiny Church from recording a full house last Sunday with no seat left unfilled, albeit with parishioners spaced one metre apart. A similar gathering is expected this weekend.

“We can, and we have kept to the physical distancing rules and we’ve complied with the hygiene practices that many restaurants have kept too,” Mr Nicholas said.

“Christians have had their freedoms removed. We want to express our faith and we want to worship our God.

“It’s more than essential for a lot of people who share our faith.”

He said the limitations showed a distrust by the Government.

Mr Nicholas said he had spoken to members of the Whakatane Police and reiterated that Destiny Church would stand not only for their church but for all New Zealanders’ rights and freedoms.

“We’ve not had any trouble from the police because they know it’s not right to arrest us for worshipping,” he said.

East Coast MP Anne Tolley said she had worked alongside a number of churches right across the electorate with regard to the bill and the restrictions placed on religious institutions and their basic human civil right to practise their religion.

“We call it a Henry VIII law because it gives extreme power to one individual, the prime minster.

“I find it disturbing,” she said.

Liberty Life Church Pastor Grant Bateson said the challenge for their church was around the “inconsistency and inequality”

“There seems to be some inequalities and inconsistencies around the decision-making table.

“Our church also works with at-risk youth in the community which benefits and blesses young people, however, suddenly they don’t have that now,” he said.

“Do they really think that we’re that irresponsible to care for our people and community.”

He said relationships and connections were important and good for people’s mental health.

“We were born to be in relationships, so, when you can’t do that in an authentic way, it’s hard.”

Mr Bateson said they would continue to honour the Government and their community, however, it was hard when the regulations seemed inconsistent.

“I think what Brian Tamaki did in Auckland looked good. I personally wouldn’t gather in a building, but what he did with the car park was good and obviously the police thought so because they didn’t do anything.”

Mr Nicholas said churches were not just venues and buildings.

“We offer services and help many in the community. This includes youth programnes, anger management courses, care for the elderly and kaumatua, and employment opportunities.

“Every member in our church works full-time and 50 percent of those people weren’t working prior to attending our church. These are the success stories you don’t hear about, but we have helped many.”

Furthermore, he said, Destiny provided essential services and many of their church members manned the community checkpoints and volunteered at the pop-up testing stations during levels three and four.

“We have been unfairly targeted and it’s not right,” he said.

delilah.whaitiri@thebeacon.co.nz