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B.C.'s ban on in-person religious gatherings headed to Court of Appeal

Last Updated Apr 1, 2021 at 6:42 am PDT

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The province's ban on in-person religious gatherings is headed for another court case

Three B.C. churches have filed an appeal arguing provincial health orders infringed on religious freedoms

British Columbians most likely in Canada to express frustration, call restrictions on religious services unfair: poll

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – B.C.’s ban on in-person, indoor religious services is heading for the province’s highest court.

In March, a B.C. Supreme Court justice dismissed a petition from three churches in the Fraser Valley that sought to hold in-person services, arguing that the orders from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry infringed on religious freedoms.

“Based on the approach the judge took he could not say that Dr. Henry lacked a reasonable basis for the infringement at issue. So he dismissed that part of the petition. And it’s that part which forms the main focus on the appeal that we started,” lawyer Paul Jaffe, who is representing those churches, says.

Just in time for the Easter long weekend, he tells NEWS 1130 an appeal was filed on Wednesday.

“It’s entirely arbitrary, it’s discriminatory against the churches, and there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest viruses become activated or more transmissible based on the subject of discussion. So that’s the case that we brought to the court, but unfortunately, it’s not a case that has been decided yet,” Jaffe said of B.C.’s restrictions, noting people are still allowed to go to a Costco, for example.

“It was our position that what must be relevant is not the subject of discussion in any particular gathering but whether or not people are taking steps to be safe,” he added.

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The appeal outlines the churches’ argument, which Jaffee explains as “gatherings which are secular, in the sense of pubs, and schools, and gymnasiums, were permitted.”

“But gatherings which would accommodate an in-person worship service with a church, those were prohibited,” he said.

B.C.’s top doctor announced this week that the province was going back on recent relaxation of rules. On March 25, the province said restrictions on in-person, indoor religious gatherings was temporarily being eased. That relaxation of rules was to allow indoor services on four days — at individual faith leaders’ choosing — between March 28 and May 13.

However, Henry said on Monday that it was hitting pause on that move, as cases continued to rise and concerns grew over increased transmission.

Jaffe stresses that the churches he’s representing agree that people need to adhere to safety protocols, such as social distancing, mask wearing, and contact tracing. However, he believes the province needs to be balanced in its decisions.

It’s unclear when the BC Court of Appeal will hear the case.

Restrictions on religious services

“This is now the second year, the second holy period of the spring where faithful people in Canada — Canadians of faith, regardless of which religious path they follow — are having to forego the rights, the celebrations, the time of community and congregation that they experience at this time of year,” explained Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute.

One of the pollster’s latest surveys finds people in B.C. are among the most likely in Canada to express frustration or call restrictions on religious services unfair.

“When it comes to the restrictions that houses of worship have had to deal with — in addition to every other facet of public life — you find overall that Canadians of faith and religious Canadians fall into, really, two camps,” Kurl explained, adding about half of them are of the view that restrictions on in-person services have been fairly balanced.

She notes the poll was conducted just before B.C. clamped down again this week on religious services and other areas.

“But I think it does speak to the frustration that British Columbians of faith and who would like to be attending in-person have been feeling around the idea or the notion of restaurants before they were forced to close for in-person dining,” Kurl said.

Fifty per cent of British Columbians surveyed said they believed restrictions have been unfairly harsh on places of worship compared to other public venues. People in Saskatchewan followed at 45 per cent, while Quebec came in as the province with the third-highest proportion of respondents who believe restrictions are overblown.

-With files from John Ackermann