Churches as unifiers should not be penalized for their effective contact tracing



June 19, 2020

By pastor Gerrit Bruintjes and André Schutten

For the past month, many religious leaders have been calling on the Ontario government to ease its total ban on corporate worship services. On June 12th, the Ford government issued an executive order permitting religious ceremonies, including weddings and funerals, at 30% building capacity. In our current context amidst social unrest and uncertainty, this is a good decision not only because the Charter of Rights demands this response, but also because churches unify diverse people and can trace contacts well.

In the last few weeks, thousands have joined protests against racism in Toronto and Ottawa, in direct violation of Ontario’s Regulation 52/20, which prohibited, at the time, “an organized public event of more than five people.” The same order banned “a gathering of more than five people for the purposes of conducting religious services, rites or ceremonies.” As many saw these massive marches filling public streets, they asked why other important gatherings – for weddings, funerals, and worship – were not permitted at all.

Governments can’t pick and choose favourites.
The Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly stated that there is no hierarchy of rights. The right to peacefully assemble in order to protest (guaranteed by section 2(b) and 2(c) of the Charter) is not a higher right than the freedom to peacefully gather for religious worship (protected by section 2(a) and 2(c) of the Charter). Both scenarios are subject to reasonable limits in law. But those limits must be equitably applied. Governments can’t pick and choose favourites. So, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms demands that provincial governments lift the draconian restrictions on corporate worship.

Protesters rightly call for equal treatment of diverse people. Churches weekly strive to do what the protests are asking for: unify diverse peoples. We strive to unite a mosaic of humanity without destroying diversity. We do so as part of the religious tradition that ended the race-based slave trade and championed the civil rights movement through towering figures like the evangelical Member of Parliament William Wilberforce and the iconic Baptist preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King and Wilberforce saw wicked and brutal racial injustice and worked to radically change public policy by applying their Christian worldview. Sadly, too many Christians have failed to do so, even though Christianity provides a rock-solid basis for equality. Each human being, regardless of colour, is crafted in the image of God: a unique, beautiful, intrinsically valuable person worthy of dignity and respect. Jesus taught compassionate, sacrificial love for all, including those different from you. He powerfully explained this indiscriminate love in the parable of the good Samaritan, lived it through his association with people of all types, and perfectly displayed it through his own sacrifice on the cross.

Today the church tries, albeit imperfectly, to apply Jesus’ commitment to love, serve, and teach. The apostle Paul wrote 2,000 years ago, “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek,” or black or white. That was a revolutionary idea then. Today people still struggle to live out this truth. It must be taught and experienced Sunday by Sunday, so that Christians can be strengthened in their efforts to be voices for unity and equality.

Civil leaders have encouraged and joined thousands of strangers thronging together to protest injustice (and we certainly do not begrudge anyone this right). Yet, some of those same leaders discourage or forbid religious communities from gathering to worship the God who is love.

The interconnectedness of a religious community is actually a great advantage during a pandemic.

The interconnectedness of a religious community is actually a great advantage during a pandemic. Due to their interconnectedness, churches have excellent contact tracing. In mass protests, grocery stores, or restaurants, follow-up with individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 is very difficult, if not impossible. Contact tracing becomes time-consuming and resource intensive. Many cont­­acts fall through the cracks and end up labeled as “unknown community spread.”

In contrast, churches can quickly and effectively respond to an outbreak. If a member of a congregation were to become infected, an email from a pastor can quickly notify an entire congregation of the need for testing and isolation. Because the vast majority of people in a congregation know each other by name, any interaction will be remembered and acted on. Faith communities will cheerfully cooperate to reduce the spread of the virus.

A church should not be penalized simply because it is effective in its capacity to trace an outbreak.

Ironically, a church’s superior ability to do effective contact tracing has been turned against it. Because spread at a church is easy to identify, it may appear that churches are at higher risk than other locations. But churches are not actually higher risk than other gatherings. A large protest has similar or greater risk, but any outbreak is harder to track and manage. A church should not be penalized simply because it is effective in its capacity to trace an outbreak.

Churches work to provide hope and comfort in difficult times, in times of pandemic, in times of racial tension, in times of economic uncertainty, and in times of social unrest. By removing a major impediment to the ministry of the church and allowing corporate worship in a cautious manner, the Ontario government has made a big step forward in helping our society seek healing and recovery.

Gerrit Bruintjes is the pastor of Bethel Canadian Reformed Church in Richmond Hill. André Schutten is a constitutional lawyer with the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada in Ottawa.

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