The province's request for an injunction to stop three churches in the Fraser Valley from defying COVID-19 provincial health orders has been denied by the B.C. Supreme Court.
Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel, Abbotsford’s Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church, and Chilliwack’s Free Reformed Church have continued on with church services despite current health orders not to hold in-person gatherings that have been in effect since November.
B.C. Attorney General David Eby and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry filed the request for the injunction.
Henry argued that indoors religious settings have increased risk for COVID-19 transmission because they involve large numbers of people from different households, including individuals from high-risk groups such as seniors; are held for periods of time longer than 15 minutes; and usually involve loud talking or singing, which may increase transmission.
However, the churches state that they practise health measures, including physical distancing; limit attendance; provide sanitizer and masks; and more.
Henry had sent a letter to the Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack, stating that “experience has shown it is particularly difficult to achieve compliance with infection-control measures when members of a close community come together indoors at places of worship”.
B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson stated in his decision issued today (February 17) that although he does not condone how the churches are contravening health measures, he questioned what would be achieved by the injunction.
“If it were granted and not adhered to, would the administration of justice yet again be brought into disrepute because the B.C. Prosecution Service considers that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute those who refused to adhere to the orders sought from this Court?” Hinkson wrote in his decision.
When Hinkson asked the province and Henry for the reason for seeking an injunction, they stated that “while the petitioners and others like them are not dissuaded from their beliefs and practices by the impugned orders, an order from this Court is more likely to accomplish their compliance”.
However, Hinkson stated that he is unconvinced “that an injunction alone, without enforcement by the B.C. Prosecution Service, would overcome the deeply held beliefs of the petitioners and their devotees”.
CBC News reported that at a hearing on February 12, Hinkson stated that the attorney general is putting the court in an "impossible position” by requesting an injunction to stop the churches from holding services and that he shouldn’t be doing Henry’s job.
In his decision to dismiss the request for an injunction, Hinkson also considered “other means of enforcement open to the respondents”.
In response to Hinkson’s decision, Henry issued a statement.
“Based on the science and evidence, I put public health orders in place to protect faith leaders, their congregations and the communities in which they worship,” Henry explained. "I am confident that all PHO orders are in accordance with the law, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and we look forward to the conclusion of the larger case that remains before the courts.”
The three churches are attempting to take legal action to overturn the provincial health order prohibiting indoor church services with parishioners. The churches are arguing that the health measures infringe upon their rights to religious freedom.
The legal challenge by the churches is slated to be heard on March 1.