Church supporters, conspiracy theorists mingle outside court as B.C. constitutional challenge begins
VANCOUVER -- A battle between the province and religious leaders is playing out before the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court this week, as three Fraser Valley churches challenge the constitutionality of public health orders.
Abbotsford’s Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church, the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack and Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel contend orders prohibiting in person religious services violate their rights.
“The practice of their faith together is extremely important,” said lawyer Paul Jaffe, who represents the churches. “It reflects a deeply-held fundamental tenet of their faith.”
Inside, he told Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson the public health orders, as they relate to religious groups, are “arbitrary, overbroad and disproportionate.”
Several dozen demonstrators spent the day gathered on the court steps, listening to street preachers and offering support for the churches challenging the orders.
“I’m out here because my church is closed and I have a commandment from my lord and saviour Jesus Christ to worship,” said a woman named Ashley, who would not provide a last name.
Among the crowd were many of the organizers of weekly "Freedom Marches" in downtown Vancouver against public health orders — often featuring anti-mask rhetoric and COVID conspiracy theories.
Outside the court Monday, people held signs calling the pandemic a hoax or featuring caricatures of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Some signs depicted her with a Pinocchio nose and another had a picture of Henry with devil horns and a caption with the unfounded allegation she worships at the Church of Satan.
“I’ve never studied constitutional law but I do believe that we have the authority over our own bodies to decide what health measures we can take,” said church supporter Tony Tasker.
Late last week, the province granted the three churches involved in the case exemptions allowing for outdoor services with a maximum of 25 people if certain safety protocols are followed.
But in court, Jaffe argued churches have been singled out for closure while secular activities have been allowed to continue — with additional safety measures.
Religious groups of all denominations have still been allowed to livestream services online, and people can still visit places of worship individually.
Vancouver lawyer Sarah Leamon said a decision in the case could have wide-ranging impacts for religious groups across the province.
“I think if the court ultimately does side with these religious organizations, it will open the door for other religious organizations to do the same,” Leamon said in an interview with CTV News.
“That being said, the important thing to remember here is that there isn’t an outright ban on religious gatherings or religious activities. This is just a limit on what’s allowable within the context of a global health emergency.”
Leamon went on to say it’s important to remember rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not considered absolute, and the government is allowed to limit them, provided those measures can be justified.
“That is the type of analysis the court will be engaging in ultimately rendering a decision.”
The case is scheduled for three days before Chief Justice Hinkson and he is then likely to take some time before ruling.