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B.C. health officer seeks injunction against churches violating ban on services


VANCOUVER — British Columbia's provincial health officer and attorney general are asking for a court injunction ordering three churches to follow public health rules banning in-person religious services.

The application in B.C. Supreme Court comes after the churches filed a petition challenging the province's prohibition on the services, arguing the ban violates people's rights and freedoms. 

The Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, the Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack filed the petition last month.

The province says in its response to the petition that the temporary ban on public gatherings, including in-person religious services, is necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19 in B.C.

The ban was first announced in November, amid rising cases, and does not apply to online services, drive-thru services, individual meetings with religious leaders or private prayer or contemplation.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, considered and gave weight to the importance of religious freedom, as well as the mental health benefits to worshippers, but determined that the restrictions were necessary and proportionate, the province says in its reply to the petition. 

Henry relied on evidence showing that transmission of the virus seems highest in settings of sustained interpersonal interaction indoors or in enclosed spaces, and loud talking, chanting and singing also increase spread, it says.

"There is no question that restrictions on gatherings to avoid transmission of SARS-CoV-2 limit rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as personal liberty in a more generic sense," the province says.

"But rights and freedoms under the charter are not absolute. Protection of the vulnerable from death or severe illness and protection of the health-care system from being swamped by an out-of-control pandemic is also clearly of constitutional importance."

The province will make its application for an interlocutory injunction against the three churches and their leaders to B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson on Friday.

If the injunction is granted, it will enable police officers to detain anyone who violates the order and attends or hosts an in-person religious service at any of the churches.

The churches are represented by a Calgary-based advocacy group, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Lawyer Marty Moore said in a statement that the government's actions to seek an injunction against the churches "does not appear to reflect a genuine effort to advance public health concerns."

"If the public gathered in these churches to buy flat screen TVs and home appliances, or to exercise with gym equipment and yoga mats, or for group support meetings, or for secular education, or for dining and pub activities, such activities would be permissible under the (provincial health) orders," he said. 

Data provided by the government states that 180 positive COVID-19 cases are associated with places of worship, but doesn't indicate whether health guidelines were being following in those settings, Moore said.

B.C. has had over 65,000 positive COVID-19 cases to date, indicating that places of worship have not been a significant location of transmission, he added.

"Our clients continue to diligently implement health guidelines and protocols to minimize any risk of COVID transmission, and will be providing the court with evidence attesting to the safety of their services."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2021.

Laura Dhillon Kane, The Canadian Press

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