There will be no injunction blocking three Fraser Valley churches from continuing to hold services in violation of ongoing provincial health orders.
Justice Christopher Hinkson, the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, dismissed the province’s application for an injunction Wednesday morning.
“To be clear, I am not condoning the petitioners’ [churches] conduct in contravention of the orders that they challenge, but find that the injunctive relief sought by the respondents should not be granted,” Hinkson wrote in his decision.
His ruling was founded largely on the grounds that the province didn’t need the courts to intervene with an injunction – there are already other powers the government can use to enforce the health orders.
He noted that in Chilliwack, RCMP officers had told the church members they could face “up to six months in jail and massive fines, upwards of $50,000.”
He also noted that in some recent cases, including an injunction issued by the courts against protesters at the Vancouver Port Authority, police and the B.C. Prosecution Service have declined to enforce the injunction once it was issued.
“I am left to wonder what would be achieved by the issuance of an injunction in this case,” Hinkson wrote.
The court battle was started by the churches, who are being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. They petitioned the B.C. courts to allow them to continue meeting for religious worship on Charter of Rights and Freedoms grounds.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, who along with the B.C. Attorney General was officially asking for the injunction, said in a statement later Wednesday that she respected Hinkson’s decision.
“Since the very start of the pandemic, the office of the Provincial Health Officer and leaders across government have had ongoing dialogue with faith leaders and had many respectful conversations with them on how best to protect their congregations,” Henry’s statement said.
She noted the health orders apply to everyone.
“These are legal orders that apply to everyone in our province, and most churches are following them,” Henry said.
The three churches are Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack.
As the court battle continued, the provincial government applied for the injunction to stop church attendance, at least until the court case is settled.
An injunction could have allowed police to potentially arrest or physically bar people from attending the three churches.
Lawyer Gareth Morley, representing the Attorney General of B.C. and Dr. Bonnie Henry, argued last week that the injunction was necessary to stop gatherings after the three churches had all defied orders that closed churches for in-person indoor services in November.
The churches have received fines of up to $2,300 per incident, although local police and bylaw officers have not turned up every Sunday.
Paul Jaffe, the lawyer representing the churches, argued that there was no scientific evidence the churches were a risk to spread the coronavirus. He also suggested the banning of religious meetings was “vindictive.”
“My clients can be detained on an officer’s belief that they are going to pray. It’s incredible,” he said.
Morley had countered that the health orders were based on type of gathering, not on whether or not they were religious gatherings.
Hinkson is expected to hear the main arguments between the two sides in a court case scheduled to begin on March 1.
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