Free Grace Baptist Church on Wellington Avenue was one of the churches in Chilliwack that continued to hold in-person services despite public health orders. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)

Letter from civil liberties perspective takes issue with B.C. restrictions on religious gatherings

'For many, worshipping is essential to their mental and spiritual health and well-being'

The restrictions imposed on gatherings for religious services by provincial health orders are both “disproportionate and unnecessary.”

That view was in a letter fired off to Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry before the Christmas holidays, from Harsha Walia of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), and Michael Bryant of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

Determining “essential” services and venues requires “highly subjective value judgements” the letter posits.

“In any event, we are writing about an activity that is constitutionally protected,” the letter argues about in-person worship suspensions.

“Individuals engage in in-person worship services for a variety of reasons, but to compare these services to a night at the movies or theatre does a disservice to this constitutional right.

“For many, worshipping as part of a community is essential to their mental and spiritual health and well-being.”

READ MORE: Two local churches had in-person worship

The letter-writers concerned with civil liberties did acknowledge the “approach that B.C. has taken compared to some other provincial jurisdictions” that went with a more a punitive approach during the pandemic, stressing stringent enforcement and ticketing measures.

“By contrast, B.C. has consistently prioritized education and aimed for clear and consistent messaging around restrictions,” they wrote.

That is why they were so concerned by the pre-Christmas order which “deviates” from the non-punitive approach emphasizing education, with orders that they deemed both “disproportionate and unnecessary.”

The current B.C. public health order provides police with the ability to proceed with enforcement action in the form of tickets or by recommending charges to BC Prosecution Service for offences against the COVID-19 Related Measures Act.

RELATED: OPINION: Worship should be considered an essential service

The issue has created some debate within the faith community in Chilliwack.

Feeling unfairly targeted by the Nov. 19 public health order on indoor gatherings, and certain they have the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, pastors at Chilliwack Free Reformed Church and Free Grace Baptist Church held services on Nov. 21 and Nov. 22, two and three days after such gatherings were banned.

“The identification of what is and what is not an ‘essential service’ is certainly open for interpretation, but in short, we believe that churches are essential, and that Christians are commanded by God to attend public worship,” Pastor James Butler of Free Grace Baptist told The Chilliwack Progress in a statement Thursday (Nov. 26).

“Our convictions compel us to worship our God in the public gathering of his people and we must act in accordance with our conscience,” Pastor John Koopman said in a statement issued Friday (Nov. 27).

The letter-writers have also requested from B.C. officials “the rationale” for curbing in-person worship. Heavy restrictions to drive-in, virtual or remote services flies in the face of the more relaxed rules in place for schools and workplaces, restaurants, pubs and bars, and retail establishments.

“While it appears that perhaps the orders attempt to distinguish between social activities and commercial activities (limiting the former more significantly than the latter), in our view a religious service does not fit easily into either of these categories,” the letter continued.

It’s not clear why some in-person gatherings may continue, like meetings of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous.

“This presumably reflects the fact that these gatherings perform a vital function for those in attendance,” the letter-writers said. “We would argue this rationale applies equally to in-person worship, particularly during times of the year with heightened religious significance, and when other restrictions in place mean that many will not be able to rely on time with friends and family for support.”

The restrictions across Canada vary widely with many provinces continuing to allow some in-person religious services to take place, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

The ask was crystal clear.

“We strongly encourage you to reconsider the current order and allow in-person worship to take place in accordance with appropriate safeguards.”

READ MORE: RCMP submit reports of churches violating orders

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Chilliwack Progress