This article was first published in The Epoch Times
With restrictions on gatherings and other lockdown measures persisting for nearly a year across much of the country, many faith leaders are struggling to provide the connection and community that typically nourish their congregants through hard times. Church pastors trying to keep services operating even at 30 percent capacity have faced charges with a risk of draconian six-figure penalties. Some have been restricted to impersonal drive-in services or livestream broadcasts, and others for whom those alternatives are not practical have even had to close their churches. With no clear end in sight, some have gone underground.
I am sensitive to the term “underground church” because in my country of birth, Iran, oppression and persecution are the norm. Many Christians have no choice but to worship in underground churches, since openly practising Christianity or any other minority religion leads to persecution by the state. This could take the form of fines, but typically it involves arrests and lengthy prison terms.
My family was forced to flee Iran 33 years ago when I was just 7 years old. We were fortunate to make Canada our home, rejoicing in Canadian freedom and guaranteed civil liberties. I became a criminal defence lawyer and recently joined the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms due to my deep respect and awe for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I want to protect individual freedoms and hold the government accountable when needed, and play a role in keeping our democracy robust.
Freedom of religion is a Charter-protected fundamental right that allows individuals to practise their religion of choice, without the fear of reprisals, as affirmed repeatedly by the Supreme Court of Canada. Any limitations placed on this freedom by the government must be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. The onus is on the government, not on the church, to prove that the Charter violation is not arbitrary, disproportionate, or overbroad.
Since the current Ontario lockdown began on Dec. 26, 2020, all houses of worship have been deemed non-essential, with limits of 10 people for services. This was supposed to last a month, but the goalposts shifted yet again when the lockdown was extended for an additional 30 days on Jan. 16.
Pass by a big box store like Walmart or Costco, though, and you’ll see jam-packed parking lots, while hundreds of people inside the store can shop leisurely—often with their entire families. It’s no wonder that churches, like small businesses, feel unfairly targeted, enduring restrictions that do not apply to large and powerful corporations. And it’s no wonder that many people no longer buy the slogan “we are all in this together,” when some face charges that carry fines of up to $100,000 for gathering at their church to meet their spiritual and emotional needs over the Christmas season, while others jetted off to sunny climes to meet theirs.
The Ontario government is required to justify its severe restrictions on religious freedom. The overbreadth and arbitrariness of the laws, combined with the lack of transparency, do not meet that test. Further, the government ignores its own data and statistics, which tell us that COVID is primarily dangerous for long-term care home residents with multiple underlying serious medical conditions. However, for roughly 90 percent of the population, COVID is not a particularly deadly threat. Lockdown measures ignore this reality.
There is no question that the lockdowns have had a severe negative impact on mental health. The stress caused by the utter destruction of many small businesses, combined with the sense of loneliness and isolation stemming from lack of human contact with family and friends, can lead to depression and other mental health problems.
For many, particularly those who live alone, church is the only place where they can enjoy the support, love, and encouragement of their community. Some pastors have taken a principled stand against the lockdowns by challenging the validity of the Reopening Ontario Act and exercising their Charter freedom to practise their religion and serve their communities. These courageous individuals are willing to suffer serious legal consequences, including contempt charges and possible imprisonment.
As someone born in a country that does not have a charter and does not recognize civil rights, I am alarmed by the steady erosion of our Charter rights. With no end in sight to lockdown restrictions, it is past time for our increasingly repressive government to rethink the limitations it has imposed and adopt policies based on transparency and evidence.
Sayeh Hassan is a staff lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (jccf.ca)