Several churches, protester say B.C. health officer’s orders violate their rights

© Provided by Vancouver Sun Dr. Bonnie Henry is B.C.'s top public health official.

Officials from a handful of B.C. churches and a protest organizer are challenging the province’s pandemic health orders around gatherings and events, saying their rights are being violated.

Represented by a West Vancouver lawyer and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the group filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver this week. It includes churches in Langley, Chilliwack and Abbotsford, along with a man from Dawson Creek.

“The petition requires the court to address whether the B.C. government has struck a rational and legally permissible balance between public health objectives and the fundamental rights of Canadians,” said lead counsel Paul Jaffe. “Laws must not target people in arbitrary and discriminatory ways.”

During the first wave of the COVID-19 virus, Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and United Reformed Church in Chilliwack say they stopped in-person services, and some went online. They resumed in-person services at the beginning of June, when health officials announced that they could gather in groups of fewer than 50 people, and continued even after in-person worship services were prohibited again on Nov. 19 .

Those who led worship services say in the petition that they kept to under 50 people and took precautions, including installing partitions, spacing out seating, providing masks and sanitizer, requiring reservations, and increasing cleaning.

However, they were ticketed and their congregants were threatened with tickets for violating health orders concerning gatherings.

Their leaders argue that members suffered as a result of the restrictions, and feel lonely, depressed, anxious and afraid.

An elder at United Reformed Church in Telkwa also said a December budget meeting with 34 people was shut down by police.

Alain Beaudoin, who lives in Dawson Creek, says he was ticketed for organizing protests in his community against “an abuse of government power” in the form of “draconian restrictions” related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three public protests are described in the court document, one of which resulted in a ticket. Beaudoin said during the small protests, which were held outdoors, people kept their distance.

The petitioners say the orders violate their rights and freedoms, are unreasonable, and exceed the provincial health officer’s authority.

The court filing comes as the province “fine tunes” the compliance and enforcement provisions for orders that deal with face coverings, gatherings, events, restaurants and bars.

This involves simplifying the language around what constitutes a contravention, to help both the police and those who are issued tickets.

Changes include clarifying specific prohibitions in orders for gatherings, events and places serving food and liquor. The face-coverings order will also include another exemption for those who need to remove their mask to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired.

Violating public health orders can result in significant fines, ranging from $230 to $2,300. Courts can also impose penalties of up to $10,000 and/or up to one year in jail for “egregious” offences.