By Mark Penninga
B.C. is now the only jurisdiction in North America, that I’m aware of, where there is still a complete prohibition on indoor worship services, a full year after churches, mosques, and other places of worship were first restricted and over four months after services were “temporarily” banned (for what was supposed to be a few weeks).
These extreme measures may exist in part because our province and the current provincial government are particularly secular. Only three per cent of British Columbians say that they attend religious services at least once a week, while 67 per cent say they never attend religious services, apart from weddings, baptisms, or funerals.
Although the dominant worldviews in our society have shifted a lot in recent decades, that doesn’t give the government a license to suppress the beliefs or practices of religious minorities.
Through the pandemic, the provincial government has continually been lumping religious services in with “events” and “social gatherings,” as if they are similar to the local naturalist society or book club. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of what corporate worship is and why it matters to so many of us. Meeting together for worship is something God has commanded us to do regularly. When provincial public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry “gives us permission” to meet virtually instead, it is comparable to telling spouses that they may no longer be together physically but they have permission to still communicate electronically. We are witnessing a profound intrusion of the state into the sphere of the church. We don’t expect our secular neighbours to necessarily agree or even understand why we need to gather to worship God, but we do expect them to respect our beliefs.
The recently announced restrictions are borderline insulting to many religious residents. Services will be allowed if they are outdoors, capped at 50 people, with masks and physical distancing. In fact, it goes so far as to ban any social engagement, regardless of how much physical distance is present. In other words, don’t even think of smiling and saying “good morning” to someone 10 metres away. That may be allowed on the sidewalk or park, but it is prohibited if you are at a religious service!
The outdoor variance also betrays a geographical bias: tulips may be blooming in Vancouver and Victoria, but there is still snow in my hometown of Smithers and many other parts of the province, making outdoor gatherings unrealistic.
It is also disappointing because the restrictions on religious gatherings are so completely out of step with almost every other institution and activity in the province. Through the winter and into the spring, BC residents were always welcome to visit the local art gallery or library, and even swim in their public pool. But we are forbidden from joining with anyone else for a religious service even in large buildings with social distancing and far more effective contact tracing.
The double standard was on full display in the city of Chilliwack not long ago. The local newspaper reported that police were called to a church in that community because someone complained when they saw vehicles in the church parking lot and people gathering. When the police arrived, they found that it was actually a movie that was being filmed there. Since the movie industry is permitted to keep operating, it was okay for these people to gather to pretend to do church. Apparently what mattered was that they weren’t doing the real thing.
Premier John Horgan has recently gone on record to justify the difference in treatment between religious gatherings and other public institutions by saying that the priority is “economic activity.” The problem with the premier’s justification is that we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the highest law of our land) which exists to protect the public when the government wants to pick our priorities for us. At the top of the list in the Charter are the fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, assembly, and association.
Lord Acton wisely noted that “liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” The provincial government is interfering in the duty of many in the province to gather before the One who made us and requires our worship.
Mark Penninga is the Executive Director of the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada, a non-partisan Christian political advocacy group which intervened in the recent court case challenging the restrictions on worship services.
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