Nova Scotia

'Love your neighbour': Faith groups share COVID-19 protocols after Amherst outbreak

A number of religious organizations are assuring Nova Scotians they're taking public health guidelines seriously after a faith gathering last month was linked to a spread of COVID-19 resulting in four deaths.

Organizations keen to show they’re following public health guidelines

Rev. Ann Turner says the Anglican Church is being careful to follow public health guidelines to make services are as safe as possible during the pandemic. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

A number of religious organizations are assuring Nova Scotians they're taking public health guidelines seriously after a faith gathering last month was linked to a spread of COVID-19 resulting in four deaths.

The pastor of Gospel Light Baptist Church, which hosted the event, has since been fined $2,422 under the Health Protection Act. The province has also announced it will increase penalties for those who break COVID-19 rules. 

"I don't think all faith groups are of the same mind and will disregard restrictions and public health care with the kind of dismissal that we have seen come from Amherst," said Rev. Ann Turner, the executive director of Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

Turner said the Anglican Church has been in regular contact with the Chief Medical Officer of Health's office. The church has an expectation that all of its clergy, staff and volunteers are vaccinated, unless there is a physical impediment to doing so.

"We take very seriously 'Love your neighbour,' and 'Love your neighbour' is about creating safe environments and about creating safe places for people to be," Turner said.

Physical distancing is still encouraged at Anglican services throughout the region and choirs continue to wear masks while singing. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

The Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, which makes up 450 churches in the region, said it also encourages all ministers, staff and members of its congregations to get vaccinated.

The organization has no relationship with the church at the centre of the outbreak.

"The Gospel Light Baptist Church is not a member of us, not associated with us at all," said Peter Reid, the executive minister. "We have urged our pastors and our churches to be cautious and even be one step ahead of public health protocols."

As a way of making people feel more comfortable going to church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth has enacted a vaccine policy for its clergy and staff.

Effective Nov. 20, clergy and staff must show proof of vaccination or two negative COVID-19 tests every week.

"We're doing that as an added incentive for people to get vaccinated but also to show our parishioners that we're taking vaccination very seriously," said Rev. Robert Doyle, who is chancellor of the archdiocese. "It's an added protection for our parishioners so that's a direction we have taken." 

Rev. Robert Doyle says the Roman Catholic vaccination policy is aimed at providing a safe environment for people attending services. (Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth)

The Amherst outbreak has led to questions about whether religious services should be made non-essential, which would mean everyone in attendance would need to show proof of vaccination.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, has said that's not something he believes is necessary given the "vast majority" of organizations are working hard to follow the rules. However, some are already taking the step on their own.

"We don't want to take a chance," said Rev. Norm Horofker, who is the minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax.

The church has arranged for a member of the congregation to check people's vaccine status at the door. People can also show proof of a negative test, or, if needed, be provided with a rapid test before entering.

Horofker said it takes about fifteen minutes for the results. 

A number of United Churches in Nova Scotia have also started to require proof of vaccine.

In trying to make its facility safer, the Nova Scotia Islamic Cultural Centre has divided Friday prayers into two groups.

As many as 2,000 people would attend prior to the pandemic. Now, there are two groups with about 150 people in each.

Theologian hopes to inspire Gospel Light congregation

As far as getting the message to the congregation of the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, a Halifax theologian feels so strongly about the issue he's going to give it a try himself.

David Deane is making his own YouTube video. In it, he intends to speak directly to those at Pastor Robert Smith's church.

"These are people who are vulnerable, who are being misled by him and those like him and there are people dying because of it and that's a great tragedy, " said Deane, who is an associate professor at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax.

Deane will not add to the criticism of the church in his video. Instead, he wants to send a positive message while pointing out a few key details.

David Deane, an associate professor at the Atlantic School of Theology, believes reminders about Christ's teachings to protect the vulnerable may be an effective way to encourage vaccination. (David Deane)

"There are no coherent theological arguments for not getting the vaccine," he said.

"Those who are not vaccinated seem to be very clearly transgressing against Jesus's command to take care of the most vulnerable because their lack of vaccination is precisely putting at risk those who will depend on them, so it seems to be a rejection of Christ's teachings."

Any organizers found to be contravening the Health Protection Act and putting people in danger now face fines of $11,622 for a first offence and $57,622 for the second under new guidelines. Jail time is also a possibility.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gareth Hampshire is an award-winning journalist who began his career with CBC News in 1998. He has worked as a reporter in Edmonton and is now based in Halifax.

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