Worshippers at a trio of Fraser Valley churches defying a COVID-19 ban on in-person worship won’t find themselves staring down an injunction if they head to church this weekend.
The Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, the Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack are part of a group that’s filed a petition with the B.C. Supreme Court looking to have the ban deemed unconstitutional.
That case won’t be heard until March, and in the meantime, lawyers for the government have gone to court asking for enhanced powers to stop the services.
Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, who reserved his decision until next Wednesday, told Crown lawyers they were putting him in an “impossible position,” and asked why provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry couldn’t give police more powers herself.
“I shouldn’t be doing Dr. Henry’s job. If she wants police to have the ability to arrest people, the order can be amended, can’t it?” he asked.
Outside the court, lawyer Paul Jaffe, who is representing the churches, said his clients were taking stringent precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among their congregants.
“They’re extremely careful to comply with the safety protocols that Bonnie Henry has endorsed, there’s the question of whether the activities of my clients really constitute any sort of public health at all, and I think the evidence is pretty clear that they don’t,” he said.
Jaffe said in-person worship was of specific importance to his evangelical clients, who he said are compelled by scripture to meet face to face.
And he said the province will have to prove it has the data showing an in-person service is more dangerous than other activities that remain permitted, such as visiting a bar.
The province has publicly documented several cases of COVID-19 transmission in religious settings, including a church in Kelowna linked to at least five cases, and a cluster of at least a dozen cases in Northern B.C. linked to a prayer event in Alberta.
Speaking at her Friday briefing, Henry said the province deemed the restrictions necessary in the fall as the second wave crested, bringing rising hospitalizations and deaths, including some people who were infected in religious settings.
“We saw the transmissibility of the virus increasing and what we were seeing was that there was transmission in a number of faith settings, despite having (safety) measures in place,” she said.
“So that spoke to us about there was something about those interactions that meant that the measures that we thought were working were no longer good enough to prevent transmission of the virus.”
Henry added that the social interactions in a faith setting, which often draws older people and interacting for an extended period of time, were “fundamentally different” than the “transactional” interactions that take place in a store or restaurant.
Crown prosecutor Gareth Morely made a similar argument at Friday’s hearing, saying it wasn’t right to compare restrictions on churches with other venues.
The orders are consistent if you consider that both secular and religious schools have the same restrictions, and both secular and religious ceremonies like weddings and funerals do, too, he argued.
In the meantime, he argued, there is “no question” that there is an ongoing risk to public health of gatherings in the coming weeks.
“They have every right to challenge the public health orders, but they do not have a right not to abide by them in the meantime.”
— With files from Paul Johnston and the Canadian PressView link »