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Chilliwack churches' claim COVID-19 order violates Charter likely wouldn't hold up in court: lawyer

Citynews 1130 Vancouver

Last Updated Nov 30, 2020 at 6:52 am PDT

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Summary

Both Free Grace Baptist Church and the Chilliwack Free Reformed Church held services Sunday

Both have issued statements saying the constitution guarantees them the right to peacefully gather together to worship

Lawyer argues that a law that infringes upon or limits a right can still be found to be constitutional

CHILLIWACK (NEWS 1130) — As two Chilliwack churches continue to open their doors for in-person services, claiming B.C.’s COVID-19 shutdown orders violate their rights, a lawyer says protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are neither simple nor sweeping.

Lawyer Michael Shapray’s comments come after both Free Grace Baptist Church and the Chilliwack Free Reformed Church held services Sunday, despite a ban requiring them to close.

Shapray says, in Canada, Charter rights can be — and often are — subject to limits, something laid out in Section 1.

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” it reads.

Both Chilliwack churches have issued statements, saying the constitution guarantees them the right to peacefully gather together to worship.

Pastor John Koopman of the Free Reformed Church says congregants respect the law but are “compelled” to continue to gather.

“As a congregation, and even as individuals, we aim to be law-abiding citizens in every way possible. However, Our constitution guarantees us the freedom of conscience and religion which includes peacefully gathering together to worship our God. Our constitution is the highest law in our land. Our convictions compel us to worship our God in the public gathering of his people and we must act in accordance with our conscience,” he writes, questioning why other activities — like “hockey games, restaurants, retail stores, schools” and more — are permitted to continue.

Pastor James Butler of the Free Grace Baptist Church echoes these sentiments.

“We have sought to comply with the previous orders and have done so for eight months, but believe this recent prohibition restricting religious worship exceeds the Province’s authority under God and under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he writes.

“We have not and would not compel persons to attend our church during a pandemic, but at the same time, we cannot, in good conscience, prohibit the freedom of religion that the Charter protects.”

Further, he argues religious gatherings should be treated as essential services, saying what is and isn’t considered essential is “open for interpretation.” He adds live streaming can not replace in-person gathering.

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Shapray says a law that infringes upon or limits a right can still be found to be constitutional, which is possible in a case like this one.

“Even if it’s found to be a breach of their freedom of association a court could still uphold the law and say in the face of a pandemic, it’s justifiable. So it’s not a simple situation,” he explains.

“It probably does violate their freedom of association but I would be almost certain that the government would try and uphold that violation under Section 1 of the Charter. From a legal perspective, it’s one thing for them to yell and scream about freedom of association, but it’s another thing to understand how the charter works and that laws that breach people’s rights are still subject to reasonable limits that can be demonstrated to be justifiable.”

He points out that, for example, freedom of the press is guaranteed, but reporters can be kept out of courtrooms.

“The rights and freedoms in the Charter are not absolute. They can be limited to protect other rights or important national values. For example, freedom of expression may be limited by laws against hate propaganda or child pornography,” the federal government explains in its Guide to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.