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Justice Centre in Court challenging BC's prohibition on in-person worship services

VANCOUVER: The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms will be in court today challenging BC’s prohibition on in-person worship services, which has been in place since November 19, 2020.

The hearing takes place before Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson at the Vancouver Supreme Court of BC, located at 800 Smithe Street starting at 10 a.m. PST, and is scheduled to run through to March 3, 2021.

On January 8, 2021, the Justice Centre filed a constitutional challenge on behalf of three churches and four individuals against restrictions on public protest and the prohibition on in-person worship services in Public Health Orders issued by BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

In response, the BC government filed an injunction application, targeting the three churches who filed the court challenge. On February 17, the Court denied the government’s request for an injunction.

The BC churches challenging the Provincial Health Orders assert that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to comply with extensive health guidelines, including limiting attendance to no more than 50 persons, pre-registering attendees, rearranging seating to ensure physical distancing, providing hand sanitizer and masks, and enhancing cleaning and sanitizing procedures.

Some of these churches’ members cannot access online services, and for many in these faith communities, gathering in-person is essential to their spiritual and emotional well-being. Affidavits have been filed attesting to the negative effect prohibiting in-person gatherings has had on individuals, including loneliness, depression, anxiety and fear. Although support groups are permitted to meet, the Dr. Henry’s Orders prohibit faith communities from gathering for any “worship or other religious service”.

To justify its Orders, the BC government cited 180 purported Covid cases associated with religious gatherings in the province. To date, there have been nearly 80,000 Covid cases in BC.

The BC government allows hundreds of people to gather at any given time in a single big box store. Liquor stores and marijuana stores remain open. The government allows residents to gather and seat six at a table at bars and restaurants. But to members of the faith community, Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated: "Do not attend a service at a church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or other places of worship".

Citizens who have gathered to peacefully protest the devastating impact of Covid lockdowns have also been ticketed for the exercise of their right to peaceful assembly, expression and association—as protected by sections 2(b), (c), and (d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—as a result of Dr. Henry’s Orders. Tickets have also been issued to churches who have gathered in accordance with their sincerely-held religious beliefs. Since November 19, 2020, in-person worship services—which are protected by the freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Charter—have been prohibited entirely, regardless of the extra safety measures implemented by faith communities.

The Petition filed with the Court challenges the Orders on the basis that they unjustifiably violate the rights and freedoms of BC residents, particularly freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of peaceful assembly as protected by the Charter, and are unconstitutional.

“Dr. Henry’s orders have made it illegal for British Columbians to gather to exercise the sacred and fundamental right of religious worship, even in a safe and responsible manner,” states Brandon Langhjelm, Staff Lawyer with the Justice Centre. “Yet the orders permit other forms of indoor public gathering to continue, including in restaurants, gyms, and support groups. They allow big box stores to accept hundreds of people at a time. This is arbitrary, unjust and unconstitutional.”

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