19 Aug 2020 Grassroots Campaign to Expand Worship Services in British Columbia
On March 16, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry mandated that a maximum of 50 people could gather for a worship service in British Columbia. Our hope was that the province would gradually increase this cap as the transmission of the virus decreased and knowledge about the virus increased. But, 130 days later (as of August 19, 2020), the same restriction remains in place, even as other provinces have eased restrictions on worship services and many other businesses have been allowed to re-open with larger numbers.
It is time for Christians in British Columbia to redouble our calls for greater freedom to worship our God
It is time for Christians in British Columbia to redouble our calls for greater freedom to worship our God. Over the next few weeks, ARPA Canada will propose different messages and mediums that you can use to contact your local and provincial leaders. Our goal is that the province allows churches to operate at a percentage of their capacity for worship services (e.g. 50% of capacity), allowing social distancing measures to be maintained while taking building size into account.
A Concerning Background
In the opening months of the pandemic, Christians in British Columbia were thankful that our provincial government demonstrated a restrained response to COVID-19. For months, British Columbia granted Christians the greatest freedom to attend church services; 50 people could attend a worship service, compared to 10 in Alberta and a mere 5 in Ontario.
British Columbia has slipped from its national leadership on preserving our freedom to worship
But British Columbia has slipped from its national leadership on preserving our freedom to worship. On June 8th, the Ontario government announced that worship services could resume at 30% capacity while following social distancing protocols. The next day, Alberta announced that, as long as they adhered to social distancing protocols, an unlimited number of people could attend a worship service. But British Columbia has stubbornly maintained the prohibition of no more than 50 people in a worship service.
In response, two Fraser Valley pastors (Reverend Rob Schouten and Pastor Paul Dirks) submitted an open letter signed by 144 churches to our provincial leaders, humbly but urgently requesting that British Columbia allow attendance at worship services up to a percentage of a building’s capacity (e.g. 50% capacity).
After waiting for over a month, the pastors received essentially a form response to their request: no more than 50 people may gather for a worship service. The response, and a subsequent call with our provincial leaders at the end of July, simply reiterated the guidelines that churches should follow with 50 people gathered for worship. The government appears determined to maintain this policy indefinitely, or at least until a vaccine has been developed, which could be until next year.
These regulations continue despite the fact that other social organizations are not subject to the same restrictions, British Columbians have a constitutional right to freedom of religion and assembly, churches are not the epicentre of new community outbreaks, and churches are essential services.
Evidence of Flexibility
Despite being subject to the greatest restriction on the size of worship services, British Columbians have relative freedom to worship within these small groups. Our provincial leaders have also consciously refrained from mandating masks or forbidding singing. The province has clarified that one church building can host multiple groups of 50 people in a worship service, provided that the groups do not mix. Many churches in the Fraser Valley have gotten creative to follow this rule, using multiple entry/exit points, installing physical separators like plexiglass in their sanctuaries or establishing seating rules that enable multiple groups to assemble for worship services.
The Campaign Strategy
Over the next few weeks, we encourage you to join in contacting our provincial authorities
In response to the ongoing cap on worship service attendance and in acknowledgment of our desire to join together in worship of God, we are launching a multi-week campaign to call our provincial government to expand worship services and to return the primary authority over worship back to local congregations. Over the next few weeks, we encourage you to join in contacting our provincial authorities with different messages and different mediums, expressing the importance of corporate worship for believers.
Here is the campaign strategy for the next four weeks:
- Week 1 – send an EasyMail about restrictions of worship service size being infringements on our constitutional freedoms
- Week 2 – post pictures on social media to demonstrate how worship services are being unfairly regulated compared to other activities (e.g. airline flights or restaurants)
- Week 3 – call your MLA to talk through how churches have not been the cause of major outbreaks and can contract trace very effectively even if an outbreak occurred there
- Week 4 – meet with your MLA and describe how worship services are essential services
This week, we encourage you to send an EasyMail to your MLA, Premier Horgan, Health Minister Dix, and Provincial Health Officer Henry, reminding them that we have Charter-protected freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms recently completed a legal analysis of how our provincial government is violating these (and other) Charter freedoms. If British Columbians are allowed to shop at Bootlegger, watch a movie at Cineplex, or camp overnight at a provincial park – all activities to which we do not have an explicit constitutional right – then we should be allowed to attend church with a reasonable number of our fellow believers.
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