One ongoing point of contention in the current round of provincial health orders has been religious services.
B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said at recent COVID-19 briefings that the majority of religious and faith groups have been compliant with her orders not to hold in-person gatherings or services, and to instead conduct them with remote means.
In addition, Henry said that many religious leaders have informed her that they are continuing to practice their faith while remaining apart.
However, there have been a handful of examples of churches defying health orders, even in some of the health regions of the province that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 transmission.
Upper Fraser Valley RCMP announced today (December 18) that it has charged and fined representatives from three churches for violating provincial health orders.
Chilliwack RCMP explained in a news release that officers received reports about gatherings at three churches on the mornings of December 6 and 13.
RCMP stated that police worked with provincial and regional health officials, and the B.C. Prosecution Service to educate and enforce the health regulations among the congregations.
However on December 17, RCMP charged representatives of these congregations with eight counts of failing to comply with provincial health orders, including fines totalling $18,400.
The names and locations of the churches weren’t specified.
However, CBC News reported on December 7 that three churches in the Fraser Valley held services on December 6: Free Grace Baptist Church and Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack, and Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, which had received a $2,300 fine the previous weekend. (B.C. RCMP also reportedly visited an unidentified church in Kelowna that held services but no fines were issued after police were satisfied that health regulations were understood.)
In addition, churchgoers are reportedly planning to take legal action against the province, arguing that the health orders violate their right to freedom of religion.
When Henry was asked at yesterday’s COVID-19 briefing about why restaurants can operate but religious services can’t be held, she explained that those two situations are “fundamentally different”.
In addition, she said that even with safety measures in place at religious venues, transmission was still occurring.
On November 5, Henry had talked about an unnamed B.C. Interior church that held a service with less than 50 people and had safety precautions in place. However, singing was involved at the service, and several individuals tested positive afterward.
Outbreaks and superspreader events have taken place at churches around the world, including in B.C. In Kelowna, the Calvary Chapel had a community outbreak linked to services held on September 13 and 20.
Other examples include a celebratory gathering at a Calgary church that practiced health measures but 24 out of 41 attendees tested positive and two died.
“This has nothing to do with taking away peoples’ rights to religious freedom at all,” Henry had said on December 17.
B.C. Premier John Horgan announced on December 15 that the province will be increasing enforcement of provincial health orders, including conducting more in-person inspections.