Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church at 35063 Page Rd. in Abbotsford is among three Fraser Valley churches that the B.C. government is trying to get a court injunction against for holding in-person services. Public health orders issued in November have banned such gatherings. (Google Maps)

Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church at 35063 Page Rd. in Abbotsford is among three Fraser Valley churches that the B.C. government is trying to get a court injunction against for holding in-person services. Public health orders issued in November have banned such gatherings. (Google Maps)

UPDATED: Lawyers spar over injunction against Fraser Valley churches defying health orders

A judge is hearing arguments Friday morning in Vancouver Supreme Court

Members of three churches in Langley, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack should be banned from attending services by an injunction because of the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lawyer representing the Attorney General of B.C. and Dr. Bonnie Henry argued Friday morning in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.

“There is no question we are facing a continuing problem,” said lawyer Gareth Morley, arguing before Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson.

The government is seeking the injunction to allow police to bar or potentially arrest people from gathering in Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack.

All three churches have continued to hold services in defiance of the bans, and in January they petitioned the court to lift orders that banned or restricted public gatherings, “as they unjustifiably infringe the rights and freedoms of the petitioners [the churches] guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” according to the claim filed by their lawyers.

The B.C. government and Henry, as Provincial Health Officer, have argued the restrictions are necessary to control the pandemic, which has killed more than 1,200 British Columbians over the past year.

Lawyer Paul Jaffe, representing the churches, said there was no scientific evidence that the churches were a COVID-19 risk, and that churches can’t do what they do without in-person services.

“The evidence you have doesn’t even mention the petitioners [the churches], doesn’t even mention the way the petitioners have been conducting their services,” Jaffe said.

The churches are using physical distancing, hand sanitizer, and contact tracing, Jaffe said.

In fact, he argued that the injunction should be denied because the province’s case is so weak that it has no chance of winning the hearing on the overall petition scheduled for March.

Jaffe also argued that one of the exemptions for meetings is for support groups, and that the churches function as support groups.

“So it’s already exempt from the banning, under this order.”

The ban on religious gatherings was “vindictive,” Jaffe suggested.

“My clients can be detained on an officer’s belief that they are going to pray. It’s incredible,” he said.

Justice Hinkson quibbled with some of Jaffe’s legal arguments.

The province’s lawyers argued that while the churches have every right to challenge the ban in court, until they win they have to abide by the law of the land, and the injunction is required to ensure that.

“Dr. Henry had to weigh the public health needs against the undeniable interests that everyone who has religious beliefs has in religious practice,” Morley said.

The injunction is needed, Morley argued, because the churches have continued meeting despite receiving tickets from the police on several occasions.

“Right now they do not have the authority to do anything other than issue a ticket,” Morley said. It’s not within Henry’s power to order arrests under her own health orders, he noted.

He also argued that not only is there evidence backing up the government’s position, there have been transmissions in churches in B.C., including at least one death, that took place under the previous distancing restrictions that were in place before November, which the churches argue make them safe.

Morley also criticized Jaffe’s arguments to the court for comparing the risk to traffic collisions – Morley said that traffic accidents aren’t contagious.

What’s at stake is more people in the community getting sick and some people dying, he argued.

Hinkson questioned some of Morley’s arguments, and noted that Jaffe, representing the churches, would ask why churches are treated differently from restaurants or health clubs, for example.

Morley said Henry has stated that those types of gatherings are different, but that whether a gathering is religious or not doesn’t inform the reasoning for the health orders.

“Religious schools are treated the same way as secular schools, religious weddings are treated the same as secular weddings, religious funerals are treated the same way as secular funerals,” Morley said.

For all the discussion around scientific evidence, Hinkson’s main concern seemed to be why the government needed the court’s help in enforcing regulations.

Hinkson noted that some recent injunctions granted by B.C. courts have then not been enforced because the Public Prosecution Office decided it wasn’t in the public interest.

“If the government are going to come to this court and ask for assistance… I have to have some confidence that if I grant an order it’s going to get dealt with and enforced by the government,” said Hinkson. “And if it’s not, why would I grant the order?”

“You ask us for assistance, and we give it, and you won’t back the courts up,” Hinkson added, saying that such a situation creates an issue of the reputation of the administration of justice.

READ MORE: Injunction sought against Fraser Valley churches defying COVID orders

Morley said the government was seeking the injunction from the courts partly because the issues at stake are so fundamental, including religious freedom.

“This is not just a matter of somebody having a rave in their basement,” Morley said. The government would feel free to crack down on that using its existing tools, he said.

“The difference here is there is a matter of principle that is being adjudicated before you,” Morley told Hinkson.

He said that the church members are law abiding people and they have not said they won’t obey a court order.

“Well, they haven’t said they will, either,” the judge replied.

There was no ruling by the end of the day, despite the fact that church could be held again on Sunday.

“I am not going to give judgment today,” Hinkson said at the conclusion of the hearing.

“I am not condoning any breaches of any orders,” he added, and said he will issue his ruling on the injunction at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

abbotsfordchilliwackCoronavirusLangleyReligion

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Abbotsford International Airport. Black Press file photo.
Abbotsford Airport had 4th highest traffic in Canada in 2020, and its number are down

Statistics Canada report describes a ‘devastating year’ for air travel

(Black Press - file photo)
WEATHER: Enjoy the sun today, prepare for a week of rain

Clouds and rain to arrive by evening, Environment Canada forecasts

Chilliwack’s Ryan Wugalter with his kids, three-year-old Mira and 15-month-old Solomon. Wugalter recently released his children’s album Super Giraffe. (Submitted)
Chilliwack father releases children’s album, songs about superhero giraffe and not eating magnets

Inspiration for Ryan Wugalter’s new album ‘Super Giraffe’ came from his two young kids

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

The 2021 city-wide literacy event this year is a reading challenge for Chilliwack. (Chilliwack Literacy Society)
City-wide reading challenge goal for Chilliwack is to create a reading habit

The 2021 city-wide literacy challenge runs March 1 to 21 all for the love of reading

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

This month, a Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Approximate location of the vehicle incident. (Google Maps)
Vehicle incident blocking Coquihalla traffic in both directions

Both directions of traffic stopped due to vehicle incident

Judith Uwamahoro is Black, approximately 4’7″ tall, 80 pounds and has short black hair and brown eyes. (Surrey RCMP handout)
UPDATED: Lower Mainland 9-year-old located after police make public plea

Judith Uwamahoro went missing Friday at around 4 p.m. in Surrey

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Inez Louis, who is strategic operations planner with the health department in the Sto:lo Service Agency, talks about infection control in the latest YouTube video about COVID-19 created in partnership with the Chilliwack Division of Family Practice and the Chilliwack Economic Recovery Network. (YouTube)
VIDEO: Nurse Inez Louis explains how infection control is not social control

The difference is important for Indigenous people to hear in the context of Canada’s colonial past

Five-year-old Nancy Murphy wears a full mask and face shield as she waits in line for her kindergarten class to enter school during the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Variant of concern linked to COVID-19 outbreak at three Surrey schools

Cases appear to be linked to community transmissions, but schools will remain open

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after Friday cancellations due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

Most Read