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B.C.'s ban on in-person religious services now challenged by Roman Catholics

Last Updated Mar 2, 2021 at 4:39 pm PDT

(iStock Photo)

Lawyer says lawsuit launched because Dr. Bonnie Henry didn't respond to formal request seeking exemption to restrictions

Health Minister has confirmed work continues with faith leaders to ease restrictions when safe

Dix says he and the premier have regularly met with faith leaders since March 2020

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The latest faith group taking legal action against the provincial government is the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.

A B.C. Supreme Court claim was filed last week on behalf of Archbishop J. Michael Miller.

Lawyer Robert Piasentin, a member of the St. Thomas More Guild, says the lawsuit was launched because Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry never responded to a formal request sent to her on Dec. 23 that was seeking an exemption to pandemic-related restrictions in place since November.

“It was disappointing, given the permissions that were granted to other non-faith-based organizations — including restaurants and bars — and so, when we didn’t hear anything, it was a bit frustrating because we were concerned about the inconsistency of the application and it just seemed somewhat arbitrary,” Piasentin said.

Related article: B.C. court finds injunction against churches flouting COVID-19 rules unnecessary

He says there’s still hope in-person services will be allowed to resume in time for Easter, but the legal challenge is going ahead.

“Archbishop Michael Miller submitted an application to the province similar to the ones submitted by the Jewish faith leaders and by some of the Christian churches out in the [Fraser] Valley. There has been some back and forth with the province. We are hopeful that something positive will come from that,” he said.

Piasentin adds Archbishop Miller will keep directing all Catholics to keep honouring current public safety orders.

“We wanted to work with the province to let them know that our intention is to be as transparent and cooperative as we possibly can be to make sure all of the Catholics in the archdiocese are following the rules and to make sure we’re not making this pandemic situation worse.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix has confirmed work continues with faith leaders across B.C. to ease restrictions, but only in places where that’s deemed safe.

“There are going to still have to be restrictions for some time to come,” Dix said.

Related article: Three Chilliwack churches fined nearly $20,000 for breaking COVID-19 rules

Dix tells NEWS 1130 he and Premier John Horgan have regularly met with faith leaders since March 2020, to ensure cooperation throughout the pandemic, but he understands why some have chosen to take legal action.

“Our approach has been to work with faith communities from the beginning and we’re going to continue to do that. And I can tell you — as someone who misses going to church on Sunday — that the effect on communities is enormous on all faith communities, but we need to continue to restrict gatherings right now because that is our mission collectively — when we work with faith leaders — to keep people healthy and as safe as possible and do so in a kind and generous way.”

Piasentin says this lawsuit was only launched after the Feb. 24 deadline passed with no response from the government and the exemptions being sought now are similar to what’s already been granted to the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as three Fraser Valley churches previously fined for violating public safety orders (Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack).

He’s also hopeful this dispute can be resolved before Easter.

“So there is a template that’s been set by the province with certain conditions imposed, which was kind of what we had before the more recent lockdown where we had the 50-people maximum and all those sorts of rules that were in place, so there’s hope that we might be able to get to that stage — maybe not full-on mass attendance like we would have had prior to the pandemic, but have something, so that people are able to attend mass even if it is in smaller numbers as we approach Easter, and be able to celebrate the Easter season because it is the most important season in the church.”

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The guild’s last formal request seeking an exemption was sent to Dr. Henry on Feb. 19.

The lawsuit was filed in BC Supreme Court on Feb. 26.