British Columbia

B.C. public health rules discriminate against churches, lawyer argues

A lawyer for a group of British Columbia churches that are challenging the province's COVID-19 rules prohibiting in-person religious services argued Monday the orders reflect a "value judgment."

3 Fraser Valley churches say COVID-19 restrictions barring in-person services violate their rights

Three Fraser Valley churches filed a petition claiming the province had violated their constitutional right to expression and religious worship by shutting down all in-person religious gatherings and worship services. (Shutterstock / ehrlif)

A lawyer for a group of British Columbia churches challenging COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services argued Monday the orders reflect a "value judgment."

Paul Jaffe says the provincial health officer's orders allow secular gatherings such as in-class education and food distribution for people in need to continue, while discriminating against churches and their congregants' right to freedom of religion.

He told the court his clients — which include the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack — have been careful to adopt safety protocols similar to those approved by Henry in places that remain open.

Jaffe also argued the province has not provided medical justification showing that the virus is spreading through church services or posing a greater risk to the public than other activities that remain allowed, including outdoor assemblies over matters of public interest or controversy.

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

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told a news conference last month that churches were operating with safety measures in place throughout the summer and fall, but as the pandemic worsened, so did transmission in faith settings.

Henry and the province have said they are confident the health orders are in accordance with the law, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Hearings over the churches' petition are set to continue Tuesday.

Jaffe works with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based legal advocacy group that's also asking the court to dismiss tickets of up to $2,300 each for the alleged violations of the health orders by the churches.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson dismissed an injunction request in February by Henry and B.C.'s attorney general, whose lawyers argued churchgoers who are breaking COVID-19 rules would be more likely to comply with a court order.

Hinkson said he did not condone the churches' conduct and he was satisfied with the province's argument that the public could suffer from transmission of the virus after people attend indoor gatherings.

But he said during a hearing that the province was putting the court in an "impossible position'' before the churches' own petition is heard this week.

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