A judge rules on restrictions and religious worship

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In a decision released Thursday, British Columbia Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled that public health restrictions limiting in-person worship do indeed infringe on freedom of religion, speech, assembly and association.

However, Hinkson went on to explain that during a public health emergency such temporary restrictions are reasonable and justifiable.

His decision has implications for faith communities across the country that are challenging their own provinces’ limits.

Although it was a B.C. ruling involving B.C. churches and B.C. regulations, because the ruling is from a federal judge, it can be introduced in other provinces to reinforce arguments in favour of limits on services in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples.

That includes the case of Alberta’s GraceLife church which has been repeatedly cited for violating a provincial health order, put in place last December, that limits in-person services to 15% of fire-code capacity.

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GraceLife’s pastor, James Coates, has been in jail since mid-February for refusing to abide by a court order that he obey health regulations until his trial in early May. He has a hearing on Monday to decide whether he can be released while he awaits his trial.

GraceLife, plus the three B.C. churches that challenged health regulations in that province – Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack – all have a skewed view of religious liberty. (And I would argue of Christian obligation to one’s neighbours, too.)

All four are represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a group I am grateful exists and takes on difficult constitutional cases, even if I am occasionally at odds with its interpretation.

(Somebody’s got to keep pushing back at the state’s efforts to limit individual freedoms – and not just during a pandemic.)

The churches and the JCCF insist the state is out to crush religious liberty if it prevents in-person worship. They maintain in-person worship is essential to their faith.

In their affidavits to Judge Hinkson, the churches and their lawyers maintained severely limited church services was leading to “loneliness, depression, anxiety and fear” among their followers.

Welcome to the club. Social distancing is having that impact on lots of people in lots of contexts – feasting with family, getting together with friends, going to bars, concerts, sporting events and parties, interacting with colleagues at work or having face-to-face time with students.

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Companies that rely on a high level of creative collaboration among employees are no less hampered in their mission by having to get together only via web calls than churches that are restricted to worshiping only by streaming.

And Hinkson acknowledged that.

“The religious petitioners contend that Dr. Henry’s (B.C. chief health officer Bonnie Henry) orders are an outright forbidding of all British Columbians from the free exercise of the fundamental right to engage in sacred religious practices in a communal and collective setting.”

“In my view, this assertion is greatly overstated.”

In addition to streaming services, Hinkson pointed to drive-in services, personal prayer in church sanctuaries, baptisms, weddings and funerals limited to 10 participants as examples of worship that is still allowed.

Hinkson also ruled that Dr. Henry was owed some latitude in her decision-making. She was not required to be correct in every case, only to have acted within a reasonable range of alternatives.

I get that some Evangelical churches are frustrated by the inability to get together for euphoric worship, especially with Easter coming up – the most joyous day on the Christian calendar.

We all want (and deserve) to have pandemic sanctions lifted as soon as possible.

But it’s not just about these churches and their interpretation of constitutional rights. Don’t they also have an obligation to their neighbours not to engage in practices that might increase community spread?

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