British Columbia

B.C. churches continue to congregate despite public health orders banning gatherings

Three churches in the Fraser Valley, just east of Vancouver, continued to hold in-person services Sunday morning despite a provincial health order that prohibits in-person gatherings in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.  

Police say they're working with health authorities and B.C. Prosecution Service

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

Three churches in the Fraser Valley, just east of Vancouver, continued to hold in-person services Sunday morning despite a provincial health order that prohibits in-person gatherings in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

The Free Grace Baptist Church and Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack held services Sunday, as did the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley despite the latter having been fined $2,300 last weekend. 

One church in Kelowna also held a Sunday morning gathering, which resulted in a visit from the RCMP.

Oli Dam lives in the same area as the Free Grace Baptist Church and although he isn't a congregant there, he went to see what was happening at the church and to show his support. 

"I believe it's against our constitutional right to try and shut down church," he said. "I believe that the whole narrative behind COVID is a lie."

In a written statement, Chilliwack RCMP said they "continue to work closely with provincial, regional health officials, and the B.C. Prosecution Service in the education and enforcement of current COVID-19 health regulations."

Kelowna RCMP did not name the church officers paid a visit, saying only it was in the 1600 block of Harvey Avenue.

"When officers arrived they observed several people in attendance who were not wearing masks or social distancing," police said in written statement.

"Officers spoke at length with a leader to ensure there was a clear understanding of the updated regulations, and no fines were issued."

Oli Dam says he supports the Grace Free Baptist Church in its efforts to allow its parishioners to gather in person. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Faith-related gatherings prohibited

In November Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry's suspended all in-person faith-related gatherings as part of a wider effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Worshippers were told not to attend services at their gurdwara, synagogue, church, mosque or temple. Dr. Henry said that transmissions have happened at places of worship.

RCMP say the "vast majority" of places of worship in Chilliwack have abided by the health orders, but a small number of congregations continue to hold in-person services. 

Several people told CBC News they were upset that the Free Grace Baptist Church is still operating, but some were afraid to speak publicly because it is such a divisive issue in the community.

Neighbourhood resident Lindsay Britton wasn't one of them.

"It makes me so angry," Britton said, adding that he reported the church gathering to RCMP. "They're putting everybody at risk."

'Illnesses are going to happen'

Kari Simpson, speaking with reporters outside the Riverside Calvary Chapel, said she questioned Dr. Henry's decision to prohibit congregants from gathering in person.

"Illnesses are going to happen," Simpson said. "Viruses have to run their course." 

Simpson said many people feel patronized by Henry, adding that she doesn't think people go to church to deliberately infect others. 

Tanya Gaw, left, and Kari Simpson say B.C.'s provincial health orders against in-person religious services are against their rights. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

As of Friday, 492 people have died of COVID-19 in British Columbia. Health officials say that the provincial health orders are a key tool in preventing further deaths and hospitalizations. 

Researchers say the virus can be easily spread by people who don't show any symptoms and may not know they're infected. 

The chapel intends to dispute the fines in court, Simpson said.

Vladislad Soboled also spoke to reporters outside the chapel on Sunday.

Soboled, who wasn't wearing a mask, said he had travelled to the chapel in support of its efforts to gather worshippers in person.

"There's no pandemic," Soboled said, before walking away to hug another congregant. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

With files from Briar Stewart

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