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B.C.’s shuttered churches prompt coronavirus-era theological debate

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Frustration growing over those in B.C. not obeying health orders'
Coronavirus: Frustration growing over those in B.C. not obeying health orders
WATCH: (Dec. 7, 2020) The widespread frustration is growing over church groups and anti-mask protesters who continue to defy B.C's public health orders. Sarah MacDonald reports – Dec 7, 2020

British Columbia faith communities are wrestling with a fundamental question at one of the most sacred times of the year for many:

Why am I allowed to go to a bar or a restaurant or a crowded Walmart, but I can’t go to church on Sunday?

With the second wave of COVID-19 rolling over the province, the B.C. government has banned in-person religious services to check the spread of the virus.

Most churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are complying with the order.

But a handful of churches in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver — known as the province’s “Bible belt” for its concentration of evangelical churches — have defied the order.

Read more: Kelowna RCMP investigates in-person church service for defying COVID-19 orders

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“Churches are essential,” said Pastor James Butler of Free Grace Baptist, one of the churches that opened its doors to worshippers, risking a $2,300 fine.

“Christians are commanded by God to attend public worship.”

“Our convictions compel us to worship our God in the public gathering of his people and we must act in accordance with our conscience,” said Pastor John Koopman of the Chilliwack Free Reformed Church.

But other B.C. faith leaders disagree.

“We are wholeheartedly abiding by the health order because we believe it’s part of our mission to protect life and to preserve life,” Anglican Archbishop Melissa Skelton told me.

Skelton, whose Metro Vancouver diocese includes 66 parishes, said she’s disappointed to see a small number of churches in other denominations defy the health order.

“I’m very saddened and alarmed because the action of one church or one individual affects us all. This pandemic has taught us that we are all deeply interconnected and the actions of one can affect everyone else.”

The health order has sparked a theological debate about whether Christians are commanded by the Bible to gather together in worship.

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Some churches defying the health order rely on the Book of Psalms and its command to “praise God in his sanctuary.”

But the archbishop points to the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

“I interpret that to mean that the spirit works among them and with them,” Skelton said.

“It doesn’t have to do with buildings,” she added, noting that Vancouver Anglicans have enthusiastically tuned into the online Zoom services offered by parishes.

Read more: B.C. looks at speedy increase in fines for repeat COVID-19 offenders

But as the debate goes on, another authority may have the final say in B.C.: a judge.

Some B.C. churches have threatened legal action in a bid to overturn the health order on constitutional grounds.

“There is a legal argument to be made,” said Cara Zwigel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, pointing to freedom-of-religion provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Freedom of religion is considered one of our fundamental freedoms, though all of the rights in the charter are subject to limits. The question here is whether those limits, in this case, are reasonable and necessary.”

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The government would argue that documented COVID-19 exposures in churches justify the lockdown.

But church lawyers would argue there have been virus exposures in bars and restaurants, too, and they’ve been allowed to stay open.

If the B.C. ban does end up in court, the government’s lawyers appear confident of victory.

In the meantime, the province has hired a mediator to consult with provincial faith leaders, a wise move as the pandemic drags on.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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