Dr. Bonnie Henry is joined by Dr. Penny Ballem as they arrive to talk about phase 2 in B.C.'s COVID-19 immunization plan at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Lawyer for churches says in-person gatherings important to religious freedom

Lawyer for churches says in-person gatherings important to religious freedom

VANCOUVER — A lawyer for several British Columbia churches says the province’s COVID-19 restrictions substantially interfere with his clients’ rights to freedom of religion under the Canadian charter.

Paul Jaffe told the B.C. Supreme Court that religion is far more than belief, thoughts and opinions — rather, it’s the “actual practice” of those things in ways that are an important part of the faith.

“It’s not just the belief, it’s the manifestation of those beliefs,” he told the court Tuesday.

“There couldn’t be, I say, a more substantial interference with religious freedom than to prohibit them from gathering to worship — absolutely integral to their faith.”

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson said there are no COVID-19 restrictions on people’s religious freedoms and it’s the safety of those who are gathering that is at issue.

Church is as much a part of people’s lives as school, gyms and shopping, Jaffe said.

He repeated an earlier argument to the court, saying the orders do not prohibit outdoor assemblies over matters of public interest or controversy. Religion is a matter of public interest but there is a restriction on gatherings, he said.

“In my submission it’s entirely arbitrary,” he said. “And for some reason stereotyping of churches in a way which presents them with some kind of risk.”

Jaffe works with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based legal advocacy group that’s also asking the court to dismiss tickets of up to $2,300 each for alleged violations of the orders.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and the province have said they are confident the health orders are in accordance with the law, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Henry told a news conference last month that churches were operating with safety measures in place throughout the summer and fall, but as the pandemic worsened, so did transmission in faith settings.

Jaffe said his clients have “always recognized” the seriousness of the public health concerns but “in this instance the effect of these orders is discriminatory.”

His clients — which include the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack — have been careful to adopt safety protocols similar to those approved by Henry in places that remain open.

Religion

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