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Civil liberties groups question B.C.'s ban on in-person religious services

Last Updated Dec 17, 2020 at 4:59 pm PST

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Civil liberties groups wrote an open letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix questioning COVID-19 orders

BCCLA and CCLA argue for some, exercising the charter right to freedom of religion may require in-person services

Current provincial orders do allow for some group activities, like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Civil liberties groups argue B.C.’s blanket ban on in-person religious services violates freedom of religion as an important time of year for many people of faith approaches.

British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) wrote an open letter to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix urging them to reconsider the order. The groups argue for some people, exercising their charter right to freedom of religion may require in-person services, and taking that away has to be demonstrably justified under the law.

“When those decisions impact charter protected rights, we need our government to justify them,” says CCLA lawyer Cara Zwibel. “The burden is [on] the government to show why this restriction has to be in place, especially in light of the many other venues where this harsh restriction doesn’t exist.”

Current provincial orders do allow for some group activities, like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and the letter argues the same rationale allowing those gatherings also applies to some in-person religious services.

RELATED: B.C. extends COVID-19 restrictions into new year

She says while some faith-based organizations might be fine with virtual gatherings, the courts have been clear that freedom of religion is based on an individual’s sincerely-held beliefs, which may require an in-person service.

“There are certain things that can’t happen virtually,” Zwibel says. “You can’t receive communion virtually.”

She adds other provinces have made provisions to allow some in-person services to take place, and it’s up to B.C.’s health leaders to explain why current orders don’t do the same thing.

RELATED: B.C. to beef up COVID-19 enforcement

Local faith-based organizations have questioned why bars are open while places of worship have to close, with some choosing to meet in-person despite the order. Henry has repeatedly said the province’s restrictions target areas in the community where transmission of COVID-19 is happening at a significant rate. These have included religious services and high-intensity group exercise classes, but not places such as schools, restaurants, and bars.

At least one church in Kelowna and a few in the Fraser Valley have kept hosting in-person services. In Chilliwack, charges have already been recommended, but they haven’t been approved.

“These cases are starting to pop up across the country and I would imagine that if these restrictions remain in place for a much more extended period of time, we might see other cases crop up,” Zwibel says.

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

NEWS 1130 legal consultant Michael Shapray previously explained protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are neither simple nor sweeping.

Shapray says, in Canada, Charter rights can be, and often are, subject to limits, as 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.

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.

-with files from Bethlehem Mariam and Lisa Steacy