VANCOUVER: The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is announcing the ruling of BC Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson, who dismissed the BC government’s application for an injunction forcing certain BC churches to close.
The Justice Centre’s challenge to BC public health orders restricting protests and prohibiting worship services will be heard beginning March 1, 2021 by Chief Justice Hinkson. The Justice Centre represents over a dozen BC individuals and faith communities who have been issued tickets which total many tens of thousands of dollars for the peaceful exercise of their constitutional rights and freedoms as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.The BC legal challenge was filed January 8, 2021 in the Supreme Court of British Columbia and challenges the restrictions on public protest and worship services resulting from Public Health Orders issued by BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
The Petition challenges the Orders on the basis that they unjustifiably violate the rights and freedoms of BC residents protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of peaceful assembly” are two of the fundamental rights protected by section 2 of the Charter.
Dr. Henry’s Orders prohibit public organizing or attending “events” “except as provided for in” the Orders. Citizens who have gathered to peacefully protest the devastating impact of Dr. Henry’s lockdowns have been ticketed for the exercise of their right to peaceful assembly as protected by section 2(c) of the Charter.
After the Justice Centre filed its court challenge, Dr. Henry amended her Order link to permit public protests, stating: “…I am not prohibiting outdoor assemblies for the purpose of communicating a position on a matter of public interest or controversy, subject to my expectation that persons organizing or attending such an assembly will take the steps and put in place the measures recommended in the guidelines posted on my website in order to limit the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”
The BC government however sought an injunction to shut down the churches who brought the legal challenge in advance of it being heard in Court.
Tickets have also been issued to churches for holding in-person worship services. Since November 19, 2020, in-person worship services have been prohibited entirely, regardless of the extra safety measures implemented by faith communities.
The BC faith communities challenging the lockdowns assert that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to comply with health guidelines, including limiting attendance to no more than 50 persons, pre-registering attendees, rearranging seating to ensure physical distancing, providing hand sanitizer and masks, and enhancing cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Some of the congregation’s members cannot access online services, and to many in these faith communities, gathering in-person is essential to their spiritual and emotional well-being. Affidavits have been filed attesting to the negative effect that prohibiting in-person worship has had on individuals, including loneliness, depression, anxiety and fear. Although support groups are permitted to meet, the Orders prohibit faith communities from gathering for any “worship or other religious service”.
The BC government allows hundreds of people to gather at any given time in a single big box store. Liquor stores and marijuana stores remain open. Restaurants and bars also remain open. But to the churches, Dr. Henry has stated: “[d]o not attend a service at a church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or other places of worship”. In evidence before the Court, the BC government cites 180 Covid cases associated with religious settings in the Province. To date, there have been over 74,000 reported Covid cases in BC.
In denying the BC government’s request for an injunction, Chief Justice Hinkson did not find that the “balance of convenience” favoured granting the government’s request for an injunction.
“Our clients are relieved that the Court denied the injunction,” states Marty Moore, staff lawyer with the Justice Centre. “The BC government was seeking a court order for police to scrutinize the intentions of individuals and detain them if police believed they intended to attend a prohibited worship service.”
“Our clients look forward to the fast approaching full hearing on the constitutional challenge to BC’s complete prohibition on in-person religious services.”