Chilliwack Free Reformed Church on Yale Road (seen on Dec. 1, 2020), along with Free Grace Baptist Church, continues to hold in-person services despite the Nov. 19 public health order banning indoor gatherings. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

LETTER: Head of ARPA says banning in-person worship in B.C. violates the Charter

‘Alberta has shown more trust in churches to ensure that they care for the health and safety of their congregations’

In my community, I’m able to send my kids to school in packed buses, check out the latest exhibition at our art gallery, swim in the public pool alongside strangers, and enjoy a drink inside one of the local craft breweries. I’m grateful for these freedoms. But there is one increasingly glaring inconsistency. For the past three months, my family and I have been strictly forbidden from stepping inside a church to worship God.

The non-profit organization that I lead is applying to intervene in a court case where the B.C. government order banning in-person religious worship services is being challenged by a few churches and individuals. These petitioners believe that corporate worship (in-person worship alongside others) isn’t optional for their faith and that these religious services ought to be able to proceed carefully.

Christians understand that the requirement for corporate worship comes alongside a duty to love our neighbours and to protect life. When COVID-19 first hit last March, I am not aware of one church that did not voluntarily suspend or drastically restrict their corporate worship services days before they were ordered to by the government.

RELATED: Chilliwack churches fined $18,400 for violating public health orders

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Almost a year has passed, and our understanding of the virus is far greater than it was back in March. The actions of this government make it very clear that COVID-19 is a serious concern, but not something that should stop work, education, many forms of recreation, and a host of other things that we understand to be important for our well-being. Yet corporate worship remains completely banned.

Just as physical exercise may not matter much to those who just don’t care for it personally, the fact that some may not value spiritual health doesn’t mean that it isn’t crucial for many in this province, where a majority of the population identifies with a religion.

A few examples of just how discriminatory this is was recently communicated by a B.C. MLA to our Attorney General in a letter that was shared with me. A pilates class can be held in a church gym or hall, but as soon as someone reads from a holy book, it would be prohibited. A band can perform at a hotel lounge, but if the band sings a religious song, it becomes a prohibited religious service. A group can meet as a “support group” to support each other for a psychological, mental, or physical health condition, but the same people may not meet at a church to provide spiritual support to each other.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has given religious associations “permission” to do services virtually. But, as grateful as I am for her efforts to provide leadership through COVID-19, I respectfully remind her that freedom and rights are not bestowed on us by the state. They naturally belong to each citizen (hence the protection we are afforded by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms which exists as a shield to protect us from the strong arm of the state). In fact, unlike many other activities that aren’t banned, religion is listed as the very first “fundamental freedom” that is recognized by the Charter. If the freedom must be limited, justification has to be provided. We are still waiting.

Further, Dr. Henry hasn’t been given the authority to determine what constitutes faithful worship. There is an appropriate separation that exists between the institutions of the state and the church. That separation was created in part because of the temptation for the state to use its strong arm to impose its beliefs on citizens. For Christians, scripture makes it clear that we are to gather regularly to hear God’s word, pray, sing, take part in the sacraments, and make contributions for those in need. The fact that some churches have decided that it is no big deal for them to substitute all of this with virtual alternatives in perpetuity doesn’t mean that all Christians ought to be coerced to come to the same conclusion, against their conscience and convictions.

Because we are also commanded in scripture to honour those in authority over us, through the past year supporters of our organization have sent hundreds of emails and phone calls to communicate respectfully with Dr. Henry and their elected representatives in B.C. about the importance of corporate worship. In almost every instance that I’m aware of, the emails have resulted in form responses that ignore the specific and heartfelt requests of constituents. And when a group of Reformed churches that have been carefully following the public health orders painstakingly organized a legal effort to obtain a variance (after close to a year of restrictions or bans), the provincial government didn’t even show the decency to respond. Although we are not advocating that churches disobey the public health order, with this kind of response from the government it isn’t too surprising to see that many churches are being put in a very difficult position.

Our neighbouring province has taken a very different approach. Alberta has shown more trust in churches to ensure that they care for the health and safety of their congregations. As a result, although capacity of buildings has been restricted, corporate worship has continued even through the climax of the second wave. Through it all, there has been mutual and respectful dialogue, fostering trust and respect.

I’m seeing a great deal of kindness, patience, honour, and respect being demonstrated by religious communities in B.C. My hope is that it is reciprocated by our government.

Mark Penninga is the executive director of the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada, a non-partisan Christian political advocacy organization. He and his family live in Smithers.


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