Why is ARPA Canada Advocating for In-Person Worship Services During a Pandemic?
Those who follow ARPA Canada’s work will know that government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions have received a lot of attention from us over the last year. We expect this to continue into 2021 as we seek to intervene in a variety of court cases with a specific focus on the restrictions limiting or prohibiting in-person worship services.
Almost a year has passed since the first lockdowns in March of 2020, and Christians in most of the provinces in Canada are currently forbidden by their provincial government from taking part in corporate worship. Through all this, those entrusted with the office of leadership in churches have given countless hours to work through their obligations to honour our civil authorities, care for their flocks, love their neighbours, and obey Christ’s command to them to gather publicly to worship. We heartily thank these brothers for their service of love, respectfully urge our readers to pray for them regularly, and hope to be a blessing to them as they carry on their work through 2021.
As in all challenging circumstances, poor information and poor communication can lead to even more challenges and factions. We have been grateful to see the lengths to which many churches are going to understand the situation and to communicate with their members. In the same vein, we hope these questions and answers will help address concerns and questions that may arise as we go through 2021 amidst these challenges.
So why exactly is ARPA Canada advocating for in-person worship services while there is a pandemic going on?
Scripture commands corporate worship and the Reformed confessions and the Church Order attest to the same (e.g. Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Cor 16:1-2, Col 3:16, Acts 2:1, Acts 4:31, Belgic Confession Art. 28 and 29, Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 38, Westminster Confession 21.1, Church Order Art. 52). Gathering with the body of Christ to hear God’s Word proclaimed, pray, sing, take part in the sacraments, and give to those in need must be a regular part of our lives and is critical for the spiritual, emotional, and physical health of Christians (and for the entire nation!) (e.g. Luke 22:14-20, 1 Cor 11:6, Belgic Confession Art. 33, 35). The highest law of Canada (our constitution), guarantees the fundamental freedoms of religion and peaceful assembly. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Christians would stand up for these most basic freedoms and the responsibilities that come with them.
Churches understand that this requirement for corporate worship comes alongside a duty to love and to protect life. When COVID-19 first hit Canada, we are not aware of one Reformed church that did not voluntarily suspend or drastically restrict their corporate worship services days before they were ordered to by the civil government. Close to a year has passed and our understanding of the virus is far greater than it was. The actions of the civil government make it very clear that COVID-19 is a concern to be aware of, but not something that should stop students from attending schools, children from going to daycare, the public from accessing marijuana and alcohol, and a host of other activities (in BC the public can go to almost any establishment except a church).
To add to all of this, the evidence is clear that churches do not disproportionately cause the spread of COVID-19 and have been very willing to take great precautions to ensure the safety of all those attending corporate worship services. The duty of citizens is to respectfully communicate with the civil government so that it properly understands the need for corporate worship. Especially in this secular age, we can’t expect the civil government to understand this on its own.
What legal actions are Reformed churches taking in response to the government restrictions on worship services?
Churches have responded in a variety of ways depending on the province they are in and the circumstances in their local community. Each province has taken a different approach to corporate worship.
BC decided to shut down all in-person worship services on November 19th, while allowing stores, bars and restaurants, art galleries, swimming pools and gyms, hockey clubs, and almost every other public establishment to stay open. Since then, some Reformed churches have been convicted that, in this context, they are called by God to resume worship services. Some of these churches are facing heavy fines and are working with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) to challenge the restrictions and fines in court. At the same time, a different group of Reformed churches has been abiding by the public health orders to date but have retained legal help and have approached the provincial government seeking a variance to the order. The BC government has not responded by the deadline so these churches are proceeding with a judicial review. (A judicial review is simply an action on the part of a citizen or group of citizens asking the judiciary to determine if the actions and decisions of the other branch of government – in this case, the executive branch – are legally and constitutionally justified.)
In Alberta, the situation is much different, as churches have been able to meet for worship with a capacity limit set at a percentage of building capacity (from 50 to 30 to 15 percent). The provincial government there has given clear direction about how the restrictions will be lifted as hospitalization rates decrease.
Manitoba’s government closed down in-person worship similarly to BC’s government, but applied those restrictions much more evenly across most public establishments. To date, Reformed churches there have not taken legal action that we are aware of, though a different group of churches is working with the JCCF in a significant case that challenges many of the government restrictions on COVID-19.
In Ontario, after an initial three-month restriction on corporate worship, in-person worship services were permitted with 30% building capacity until Christmas Day. The next day, Ontario imposed a 10-person limit on corporate worship, anywhere in the province. Earlier in 2020, the Wellandport United Reformed Church began organizing a court challenge of the restrictions on in-person services. The initiating documents for that judicial review have now been filed.
Why can’t Christians agree on the right course of action (either just submit to the government till the pandemic is over, or do the right thing by meeting as we are called to by Christ)?
Using an illustration outside of the COVID-19 context, André Schutten, our Director of Law and Policy, is writing a helpful article that explains why Christians can reasonably come to different conclusions about what it means to be faithful. You will find that published on our website soon.
What is ARPA Canada’s role in all of this?
We believe it is the responsibility of the church office-bearers to determine how to respond to the government-imposed restrictions since God has given them their office (e.g. 1 Tim 5:17, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 5:1-2). ARPA Canada has not been given authority from God to make decisions for churches. As an organization that seeks to be a blessing to the church, we do not want to interfere in this responsibility. Failing to respect our place could result in driving a wedge between members of a church and their God-given authorities. It is possible that circumstances change such that, similar to Bill C-6 (criminalizing conversion therapy), we are convicted that there is only one faithful response. But that is not the case today.
That said, we will continue to do what we can to help churches in their challenging task. Like we have done in 2020, we will continue to facilitate communication with government officials, provide legal advice when possible (including legal opinions on the constitutionality or legality of certain restrictions), help connect churches with other churches or legal experts, publish helpful analysis from a public policy perspective, and also intervene in relevant court cases.
Why is ARPA Canada getting involved with court cases about restoring in-person worship services, especially cases where the churches going to court aren’t complying with public health orders (like the JCCF’s BC challenge)?
ARPA Canada has intervened in more than a dozen court cases. At the centre of some of these cases were people and organizations that were doing or teaching things that some Reformed Christians would not want to align ourselves with (the shunning practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Wall case on church discipline, or the antics of Bill Whatcott in the Whatcott case on freedom of expression, for example). Yet we intervened in those cases to advance principles in law that are critical for the wellbeing of our nation and the protection of the ministry of the church.
Regardless of what individual Christians conclude about whether we can defy public health orders that prevent Christians from corporate worship at all, we ought to all agree that the principle of corporate worship (freedom of religion and peaceful assembly) is one that needs to be protected in law and carefully guarded. The civil government can reasonably limit these fundamental freedoms, but the justificatory standard for such limits is and must be high.
In these court cases, the judiciary is examining the principle of the importance of corporate worship. Our mission includes bringing a biblical perspective to our civil governments. In other words, our intervention in this kind of case is exactly what we exist for.
The civil government has an immense responsibility and ought to be shown honour, respect, obedience, and patience (see Romans 13 and Belgic Confession Art. 36). But it is also important to recognize that the opinion or decision of a particular government official does not necessarily represent the final authority of the civil government. The civil government is made up of multiple levels and branches and is itself bound by a higher law – the constitution. We are blessed with a constitution because history has shown us that unchecked and coercive power in a fallen world is dangerous. It is possible that when a government official makes an edict, that official is the one acting illegally (contrary to the constitution). The judiciary exists in part to ensure there is an independent check on the power of government officials.
The civil government must – as the constitution requires – demonstrably justify their restrictions. The place for that analysis to take place is in the courts. Thank God for the separation of powers between the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature! This separation of powers and this legal mechanism for examining and challenging laws is a gift from God leading to ordered liberty.
It is completely appropriate for churches to appeal to the judicial branch of the civil government when it believes an order or action from the legislative and executive branch of civil government may not be justified. “Taking the government to court” is not insubordination or disrespectful (or all that accurate, since “the court” is just one branch of the government). On the contrary, it shows respect for the structure of the civil government, which is divided into multiple parts in recognition of human depravity and the need for checks and balances.
At the same time, the civil government has not been given unilateral authority to direct everyone simply because they desire to. God has given it a specific role and task, which is limited in jurisdiction. God has also given authority to other institutions to make decisions about many aspects of life. Sometimes these jurisdictions overlap. When that is the case, the institutions have a moral obligation to communicate respectfully to partner spheres, rather than dictate to them. For example, it is inappropriate for the civil government to “give permission” to churches to meet virtually since Christ gives authority to the church to call people to worship.
In ARPA Canada’s attempts to intervene in cases around this matter, we will clarify to the court that we do not counsel or direct churches in regard to whether to comply with public health orders. Christ has given the authority to the church leadership to make that decision. Our interest in the case is to advance the principles that we have stood behind since the founding of ARPA Canada.
What is a legal intervention, what is it for, and what does it accomplish?
We should first make clear what exactly an intervention is and what it is not.
Each legal case has two parties who are going to court in order to resolve a dispute. An intervener does not take the side of one of the parties, but rather comes as a “friend of the court.”
The reason why some interveners (like ARPA) are granted intervener status is that in some court cases (usually constitutional cases), the outcome will impact more people than just the two parties involved. In those cases, a court may grant permission to others to contribute legal arguments and perspectives to assist the court as it wrestles with these complex issues.
An intervener gives the court the advantage of a perspective and arguments other than those of the parties. Interveners are given strict limits of what they may or may not contribute (for example, they cannot raise new legal issues, and they usually cannot introduce evidence). Intervenors can (and are encouraged to) communicate with the parties, but they remain independent. This means that an intervener cannot control which arguments are advanced, or which legal strategy the two parties employ in the case.
When ARPA Canada intervenes in a court case, we do so to fulfill our mission of bringing a “biblical perspective to our civil governments.” We do so in line with our core principles (usually intervening in cases pertaining to life, freedom, family, etc.) The purpose of intervening is to be a blessing to the court by helping it to understand the issues at hand from our limited and particular perspective and to try to ensure that, as the law develops through a particular case, it does so in a way that accommodates our religious and philosophical commitments as much as possible.
Intervening in a case does not necessarily imply support or opposition for one of the parties in the case. For example, if a church that has not complied with government orders is fined and appeals the fine to a court, ARPA Canada’s intervention in the case is done without taking sides between the church and the civil government. Instead, ARPA Canada’s role would be to help the court understand a particular angle or perspective that is in line with our core principles.
ARPA Canada urges our readers to pray fervently for our leadership, in church and state, to recognize their calling from the LORD and to seek to fulfill it faithfully, in a spirit of love and peace.