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COVID-19: B.C. Supreme Court upholds provincial ban on in-person religious services

Click to play video: 'B.C. Supreme Court hears arguments in church challenge of Public Health Orders' B.C. Supreme Court hears arguments in church challenge of Public Health Orders
WATCH: (March 1, 2021) A group of B.C. churches are challenging the B.C. Public Health Order prohibiting public gatherings, claiming those rules infringe on their Charter rights. Ted Chernecki reports – Mar 1, 2021

The B.C. Supreme Court has dismissed a legal challenge to the province’s restrictions on in-person religious gatherings.

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson released the judgment Thursday.

In the 60-page decision, Hinkson found that while provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s ban on in-person worship did constitute an infringement on religious groups’ charter rights to freedom of religion, the infringement was reasonable based on the range of options open to the province.

Read more: Lawyer for B.C. churches says in-person gatherings important to religious freedom

“Dr. Henry turned her mind to the impact of her orders on religious practices and governed herself by the principle of proportionality,” he wrote.

“She consulted widely with faith leaders and individually asked for the input of the leaders of two of the churches making up the religious petitioners, while affirming the need for respect for the rule of law and public health.”

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Hinkson ruled there was no evidence the province’s rules discriminated on a particular religious group.

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Church challenge of government restrictions hears questions about Dr. Bonnie Henry’s policies – Mar 3, 2021

He also found the ban on in-person services did not constitute an outright ban on in-person worship — pointing to drive-in services, personal prayer or reflection, and baptisms, weddings and funerals limited to 10 participants, which remain permitted.

“The religious petitioners contend that Dr. Henry’s … Orders are an outright forbidding of all British Columbians from the free exercise of the fundamental right to engage in sacred religious practices in a communal and collective setting,” Hinkson wrote.

READ MORE: B.C. public health rules discriminate against churches, lawyer argues

“In my view, this assertion is greatly overstated.”

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The ruling also gave a first look at some of the province’s data regarding COVID-19 transmission in religious settings.

According to evidence presented by the province, between March 15 2020 and January 15 there were at least 48 places of worship affected by COVID-19 across the four mainland health authorities, with 180 associated cases and at least one death.

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The court action was brought a group including individuals along with three Fraser Valley churches — the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack — who continued to hold in-person services in defiance of Henry’s November order.

According to the ruling, those churches have been issued 11 tickets totaling $299,900.

READ MORE: B.C. judge dismisses province’s application for injunction to stop in-person church services

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The group had argued that the in-person service ban was an unreasonable restriction on the right to freedom of assembly and religion, and that the churches had implemented significant health protocols to ensure safety.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented the group, said it is reviewing the ruling before deciding on next steps.

Hinkson’s ruling also struck down language in a prior public health order banning outdoor protests, however noted that Henry rescinded that part of her order on Feb. 10.

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