VANCOUVER: The Justice Centre has filed a legal challenge in the Supreme Court of British Columbia against restrictions on public protest and worship services resulting from Public Health Orders issued by B.C. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. The Justice Centre represents over a dozen individuals and faith communities who have been issued multiple tickets of up to $2300 for allegedly violating the Orders while exercising their Charter freedoms.
The Province of B.C., specifically Dr. Bonnie Henry, has issued orders prohibiting people from organizing or attending “events” “except as provided for in” the Orders. This has resulted in peaceful protestors being ticketed for not complying with all requirements in the Orders, such as collecting the first and last names and contact information of fellow protestors. Further, since November 19, 2020, in-person worship services have been completely prohibited, regardless of the extra safety measures implemented by faith communities.
The faith communities described in filing the petition 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 members cannot access online services. 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 prohibiting in-person gatherings 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”.
These severe measures are being imposed on members of the religious community, while the BC government allows hundreds of people to gather at any given time in a single big box store. The government allows residents to gather and seat six at a table at bars and restaurants. In contrast, British Columbia tells citizens: “Do not attend a service at a church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or other places of worship”.
The Petition challenges that 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, including,
section 2(a) (freedom of conscience and religion);
section 2(b) (freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression);
section 2(c) (freedom of peaceful assembly);
section 2(d) (freedom of association);
section 7 (life, liberty and security of the person); and
section 15(1) (equality rights).
The Petition also challenges the Orders on the basis that they are unreasonable and exceed Dr. Bonnie Henry’s authority as Provincial Health Officer.
“The undemocratic Orders of Dr. Bonnie Henry restricting and even outright prohibiting the exercise of citizens’ fundamental freedoms display a disregard of Canada’s constitutional protections,” notes Marty Moore, staff lawyer with the Justice Centre. “This court challenge will require the BC government to answer for these divisive and discriminatory orders."
The Justice Centre has retained West Vancouver lawyer Paul Jaffe to lead the legal case against the BC government.
“The Petition requires the Court to address whether the BC Government has struck a rational and legally permissible balance between public health objectives and the fundamental rights of Canadians,” states lead counsel, Paul Jaffe. “Laws must not target people in arbitrary and discriminatory ways.”