A group of 16 individuals and churches is going to court to fight B.C.’s ban on in-person religious services amid COVID-19.
The group includes the Langley Riverside Calvary Chapel, which has been fined $2,300 twice for holding in-person services.
It also includes three Chilliwack churches, believed to be those that are facing nearly $18,400 in fines for violating the COVID-19 Related Measures Act.
The Kelowna Harvest Fellowship and 100 Mile House Baptist Church have also signed on.
Lawyer Marty Moore with the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the group, and said the ban on in-person religious services violates worshipers’ constitutional rights.
The group is also arguing that not everyone has access to live-streaming technology, meaning the ban discriminates by preventing them from participating in virtual worship.
“But if you and anyone go to a religious building together for a service, that is not allowed — regardless of any safety protocols in place at that place.”
Section two of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of conscience and religion.
Section one of the Charter also states that Canadians’ rights can be limited subject to “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
B.C. health officials have been insistent that the restrictions are reasonable given the risk of COVID-19, and documented cases of transmission in religious settings.
But Moore says it will be up to the government to prove that in court.
“The government will have to bring that evidence to the table,” he said.
“We have clients have been meeting for nine months without incident whatsoever. The same protocols that are being and put in place in businesses are being put in place in religious services as well, even above and beyond.”
Moore said those precautions include limiting and pre-registering attendees, ensuring physical distancing, providing hand sanitizer and masks and enhancing cleaning.
Global News captured crowds attending several services at the Langley Riverside Calvary Chapel on Sunday, a week after it received its second fine.
Most attendees appeared to be wearing masks as the arrived.
But last week, Deny Fyfe, who operates a neighbouring business, alleged she frequently sees attendees without masks, and said she can hear them outside her business calling COVID-19 a hoax.
In a live-streamed sermon last Sunday, which has now been made private, a pastor downplayed the virus, suggesting it was “possibly planned.”
Mike Zilla told Global News Sunday he was visiting the Langley church for the second time, because his church in Surrey is closed.
“I just come to visit with people, meet with people, and just socialize,” he said.
“The religious stuff is their faith and they just want to carry on with life and not have to be stuck in their house and not see anybody.”
At her Thursday press briefing, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province was talking with religious leaders about “how we can work together to support faith communities over the next few weeks, and how we can best find ways to safely come back together.”
But she said for the time being the restrictions would remain in place.
Health Minister Adrian Dix went on to thank religious groups for moving worship online.
“I understand your sacrifice, the sacrifice of losing the opportunity to come together,” he said.
“We don’t want these orders to be in place one minute longer than necessary. But they are necessary now.”
As of Friday, British Columbia had recorded 988 COVID-19 deaths, while the seven-day moving average for test positivity was over eight per cent.
On Thursday, B.C. extended COVID-19 restrictions, including a ban on all social gatherings, until Feb. 5.