The ruling falls short of a full victory for young activists who had petitioned the court after authorities in the western city of Giessen banned a protest planned for this week to denounce rules that bar public gatherings of more than two people.
Pro-democracy activists in Giessen, in the state of Hesse, say the lockdown measures breach freedom of assembly, a key tenet of the German constitution.
They took their case to the Constitutional Court after two lower courts sided with the local authorities and maintained the ban on demonstrations – even though organisers had promised to respect distancing rules during the march.
But in a blow to authorities eager to keep strict social distancing measures in place, the Constitutional Court said a general ban on demonstrations would be unconstitutional and ordered them to review their decision. It stopped short of allowing the demonstration to go ahead.
The court said health concerns linked to the coronavirus pandemic were no grounds for a general ban on demonstrations.
“The local authorities had incorrectly assumed that the provision by the Hesse state government to fight the coronavirus includes a general ban on gatherings of more than two people who don’t live in the same household and has therefore violated the constitutional right to assembly,” the court said.
The Constitutional Court added that the city of Giessen, as well as the two lower courts, must use its ruling to make a new decision on whether to allow the protests to go ahead under certain conditions or to ban them.
Germany has weathered the pandemic better than most other European countries such as Italy, Spain and France, recording just under 3,600 deaths out of 130,450 confirmed cases.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that Germany had achieved a fragile success and would take small steps out of the lockdown, starting with the partial reopening of shops next week and schools from May 4.
The Constitutional Court decision could open the door for demonstrations on German streets.
Even before Thursday’s verdict, leftist groups had vowed to hold their annual Labour Day demonstrations and street parties on May 1 in cities such as Berlin and Hamburg despite the events being cancelled by authorities due to coronavirus.
“We decide whether the May 1 festival takes place in Berlin, not the police, not the city government and the federal government,” one leftist group was cited as saying by Berlin city officials.
The social distancing rules have also come under fire from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which urged the government to reverse a decision to keep churches closed during Easter.