B.C.'s provincial health officer seeks injunction against churches for defying COVID orders

·5 min read

B.C.'s provincial health officer is seeking an injunction prohibiting gatherings by three Christian churches that are challenging her orders suspending in-person religious services.

Lawyers for Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C.'s attorney general will be in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday seeking orders against the leaders of Langley's Riverside Calvary Chapel, Abbotsford's Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack.

The province filed an application for the injunction last week along with a response to a petition by the churches and a handful of others who want to overturn Henry's orders.

According to the court documents, the province is seeking an order that would prevent elders and members from gathering to worship in their churches and from organizing celebrations, ceremonies, baptisms, funerals or any other "event" as defined by Henry's orders.

The order would also authorize police to detain anyone they have grounds to believe is planning to attend a religious service organized by any of the three churches.

Freedoms 'not absolute'

The application for the injunction comes just days after Henry announced an indefinite extension to the orders she issued last November suspending all events and social gatherings in an effort to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

In a petition filed in early January, pastors with the three Fraser Valley Christian churches claim that Henry is violating rights to expression and religious worship guaranteed by the Constitution by shutting churches while allowing restaurants and businesses to remain open.

Their petition seeks to overturn the order against in-person worship.

The province filed a response to the petition last week, claiming there is "no question that restrictions on gatherings to avoid transmission of (COVID-19) limit rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

But the province says the limits are justified.

"Rights and freedoms under the charter are not absolute," the response says.

Protection of the vulnerable from death or severe illness and protection of the health-care system from being swamped by an out-of-control pandemic is also clearly of constitutional importance. - Provincial response to petition

"Protection of the vulnerable from death or severe illness and protection of the health-care system from being swamped by an out-of-control pandemic is also clearly of constitutional importance."

Offer 'sadly rings hollow,' pastor says

An affidavit from acting deputy provincial health officer Dr. Brian Emerson states that the science shows that COVID-19 spreads better in indoor settings where people from different households gather for longer than 15 minutes.

"Clusters of COVID cases stemming from religious gatherings and religious activities have been noted since the onset of the pandemic globally, nationally and in British Columbia," the application for the injunction says.

The province's response says Henry wrote to the leaders of the three churches in December after she became aware of their intention to defy her orders.

The pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack allegedly wrote back to say Henry's "offer to consider a request from our church to reconsider your order sadly rings hollow."

The court documents say Henry consulted widely with faith leaders before issuing the order to suspend in-person religious services.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Churches also have the ability to ask for reconsideration under Section 43 of the Public Health Act.

The response says one such application led to an exemption for synagogues to hold services in open tents with no more than 25 people present.

The three churches at the heart of the lawsuit allegedly filed for reconsideration at the end of January — after suing the government.

The province says no decision should be made on the petition to overturn Henry's orders until she has had a chance to consider their applications for an exemption from the rules.

Province cites threat of variants

The province's application for an injunction says complying with Henry's orders at this point is "critical" because of the threat posed by 18 cases of new variants of the coronavirus first detected in the U.K. and South Africa that have been found in B.C.

The province says the churches have provided no evidence from anybody with a scientific or medical background to say the orders are not reasonable.

"By contrast, the Attorney General and Provincial Health Officer have provided evidence that transmission occurs in social settings ... that there is evidence from British Columbia, Canada and around the world of transmission in gatherings, and in particular, religious gatherings," the application for the injunction says.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The churches are being represented by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

In a statement, lawyer Marty Moore said the province's data claims that 180 positive COVID cases have been associated with religious services but does not indicate whether health guidelines were being followed.

"Our clients continue to diligently implement health guidelines and protocols to minimize any risk of COVID transmission, and will be providing the court with evidence attesting to the safety of their services," Moore wrote.

"The actions of the government to seek an injunction against these three churches who have brought a petition for judicial review of the public health orders does not appear to reflect a genuine effort to advance public health concerns."

'Grassroots' Christian group seeks intervenor status

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson is scheduled to hear an application to intervene in the case from the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), a group that describes itself as a "grassroots Christian political advocacy organization."

According to the application, the group speaks for reformed Christians who attend 165 congregations in Canada, including 28 in B.C.

"The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the practice of in-person public worship (including celebrating communion) has been the top issue of concern for ARPA Canada's constituency since March 2020," the application reads.

"That constituency has been profoundly impacted by the orders under review in this proceeding — likely more so than certain other religious groups."