Arguing religious freedom is protected under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian and B.C. Civil Liberties associations have written to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry asking that she exempt in-person religious services from her social gatherings ban.
“What we ask is that this order be reconsidered, and we would hope that request would be taken seriously, given that the existing orders do allow other venues to be open with certain protocols,” said CCLA lawyer Cara Zwibel. “This is obviously a significant time of year for many religious people, and I think they’re looking around and wondering why you can buy Christmas dinner and you can go buy Christmas presents, but why you can’t go to a Christmas mass.”
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz from Temple Sholom in Vancouver agrees.
“I think that they make a very compelling argument, and I’ve had many of the same thoughts, though not on a legal basis,” he said. “I do think the restrictions on religious gatherings is overly broad. There must be a middle ground between all or nothing.”
He points to the Jewish faith, where at least 10 in-person mourners are required for memorial prayers.
“I think some accommodations need to be made,” he said.
But Henry says when houses of worship were open and adhering to strict COVID-19 protocols, there was still transmission.
“That is why those settings are included in some of those that we know are high risk right now, and this has nothing to do (with) taking away people’s rights to religious freedom at all,” said Henry.
Not all faith leaders are looking for the orders to change. While Dean Christopher Pappas, the rector at Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral, says it is a burden not to worship in person, he believes protecting his congregation is more important.
“I think we have an obligation to our neighbours,” he said.
As for the CCLA’s argument about the Charter of Rights protecting religious gatherings, Pappas said: “With rights come great responsibilities, and with responsibilities sometimes we are asked to sacrifice.”
Christ Church Cathedral has moved all its annual Christmas services online.
With several Fraser Valley churches defying the provincial order and continuing to hold in person services, the CCLA believes the issue could end up in court. Rabbi Moskovitz doesn’t support what those churches are doing, and hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“We don’t need to go to court to solve this. I think we all want the same thing,” he said.
He and other faith leaders have spoken to the province about easing the restrictions, but to no avail.
“I know they are working on it, but time really is of the essence. So what am I hoping for? I’m hoping for a more nuanced solution. I’m hoping for some trust they place in us as faith leaders,” he said. “This is where faith leaders can help our government see the ways to navigate through this.”