British Columbia

2 Chilliwack churches continue to hold services despite public health orders

A pair of churches in the Fraser Valley continue to offer in-person services despite orders from health officials to suspend the gatherings.

Pastors say Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms supports their argument to keep gathering

The Chilliwack Free Reformed Church and the Free Grace Baptist Church have both held in-person worship despite provincial health orders prohibiting gatherings in those settings. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

A pair of churches in the Fraser Valley are continuing to offer in-person services despite orders from health officials to suspend the gatherings.

The Free Grace Baptist Church and Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack, B.C., both held services last Sunday and are expected to as well this week. Their leaders argue that restricting the gatherings violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Our constitution guarantees us the freedom of conscience and religion, which includes peacefully gathering together to worship our God," wrote John Koopman, pastor of the Chilliwack Free Reformed Church, in a statement shared with media this week.

"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."

Both Koopman and James P. Butler, pastor at the Free Grace Baptist Church, declined interviews with CBC News, but both supplied statements offering arguments for continuing on with in-person worship at their churches.

Essential service

Both said they consider in-person worship an essential service and that, as commanded by God, they are required to attend public worship.

Butler rejected virtual-only versions of worship, arguing that people continue to go to grocery stores, even though it is possible to shop online.

"Persons still attend grocery stores because online shopping does not provide everything that an 'in-person' shopping experience can provide," he wrote.

"In a much greater way, the same is true for the church, especially in a time of pandemic when depression, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, and other mental health challenges are soaring."

'Disparate and discriminatory fashion'

Marty Moore, a barrister and solicitor for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said in an email to CBC News that freedom of conscience and religion is the first fundamental freedom guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

"Yet, recent order in B.C. treats religious gatherings in a disparate and discriminatory fashion in disregard of Canadians' constitutional freedoms."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says despite their best efforts to keep worshippers safe, COVID-19 infections have been occurring at places like churches. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry suspended all in-person faith-related gatherings earlier this month in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Worshippers were told not to attend services at their gurdwara, synagogue, church, mosque or temple.

The move drew criticism from faith leaders at the time, including from Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver J. Michael Miller, who said the move was "puzzling" considering parishes like those under his leadership have not been vectors of transmission.

On Friday, Henry doubled-down on the reasoning, saying that places of worship were not doing anything wrong, but despite their best efforts, transmission was occurring and adding to B.C.'s growing number of cases.

"These are not decisions we make lightly," she said at her briefing.

It is unclear if the two churches will be able to continue with impunity.

Chilliwack RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Mike Rail said that the orders from public health authorities "are not optional," but that education rather than enforcement was the focus for officers.

"However should circumstances dictate, police have the authority to carry out enforcement of the provincial public health orders, to help ensure compliance and therefore public safety," he said in an email to CBC News.

With files from Jon Hernandez, Joel Ballard and Georgie Smyth