Members of three churches in Langley, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack should be prevented from attending services by an injunction because of the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lawyer representing the Attorney General of B.C. and Dr. Bonnie Henry argued Friday morning in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.
“There is no question we are facing a continuing problem,” said lawyer Gareth Morley, arguing before Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson.
The government is seeking the injunction to allow police to bar or potentially arrest people from gathering in Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack.
All three churches have continued to hold services in defiance of the bans, and in January they petitioned the court to lift orders that banned or restricted public gatherings, “as they unjustifiably infringe the rights and freedoms of the petitioners [the churches] guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” according to the claim filed by their lawyers.
The B.C. government and Henry, as provincial health officer, have argued the restrictions are necessary to control the pandemic, which has killed more than 1,200 British Columbians over the past year.
Lawyer Paul Jaffe, representing the churches, said there was no scientific evidence that the churches were a COVID-19 risk, and that churches can’t do what they do without in-person services.
“The evidence you have doesn’t even mention the petitioners [the churches], doesn’t even mention the way the petitioners have been conducting their services,” Jaffe said.
The churches are using physical distancing, hand sanitizer, and contact tracing, Jaffe said.
In fact, he argued that the injunction should be denied because the province’s case is so weak that it has no chance of winning the hearing on the overall petition scheduled for March.
Jaffe also said that one of the exemptions for meetings is for support groups, and that the churches function as support groups.
“So it’s already exempt from the banning, under this order.”
“Dr. Henry had to weigh the public health needs against the undeniable interests that everyone who has religious beliefs has in religious practice,” Morley said.
The injunction is needed, Morley argued, because the churches have continued meeting despite receiving tickets from the police on several occasions.
“Right now they do not have the authority to do anything other than issue a ticket,” Morley said. It’s not within Henry’s power to order arrests under her own health orders, he noted.
Hinkson at times was skeptical of Morley’s arguments, and noted that lawyer Paul Jaffe, representing the churches, is likely to ask why churches are treated differently from restaurants or health clubs, for example.
Morley said Henry has stated that those types of gatherings are different, but that whether the gathering was religious or not didn’t inform the decision.
“Religious schools are treated the same way as secular schools, religious weddings are treated the same as secular weddings, religious funerals are treated the same way as secular funerals,” Morley said.
Hinkson also noted that some recent injunctions granted by B.C. courts have then not been enforced because the Public Prosecution Office decided it wasn’t in the public interest.
“You ask us for assistance, and we give it, and you won’t back the courts up,” Hinkson said, adding that such a situation creates an issue of the reputation of the administration of justice.
The hearing is ongoing.
– More to come