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OPINION: Authoritarian attempt to lockdown churches is unjustifiable and unconstitutional

Faith leaders left to contemplate civil disobedience
Reverend Lucy Price, centre, wears a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 as she speaks before blessing pets during a small physically-distanced outdoor service to mark St. Francis Day, at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

By Mike Schouten

Dr. Bonnie Henry’s Nov. 19 decision to place a complete prohibition on corporate worship services came as a great disappointment to people of faith across the province and will push many faith leaders to seriously consider something they did not conceive would ever be necessary in Canada – civil disobedience.

There has been an increase of COVID-19 cases throughout the province, though these have not been associated with any houses of worship. So faith leaders did not expect the government’s draconian lockdown of mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples. What makes this move against faith communities all the more troubling is that movie theatres, gyms, and restaurants are still trusted to operate safely.

During this pandemic, most of our Christian duties have been curtailed: the duty to give tender care to aged parents, the duty to tend to the sick, comfort the mourning, and visit and encourage the lonely, the duty to corporately worship and pray for our nation and city, the duty to love the orphan or foster child and their family, the duty to assist the new mother, the addict, the poverty-stricken, and the mentally distressed. All of these joyous tasks have been dramatically curtailed since March. Now they have been outright forbidden by the civil government. These responsibilities certainly cannot be done by way of “online church.”

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The situation today is unprecedented in history. In the past there have been much worse and deadlier pandemics (Spanish flu in 1918-1919, and the Asian Influenza in 1957 to name just two), but restraints of this magnitude were never imposed; the only exception being that places of worship limited gatherings on request for three weeks.

The current public health emergency was declared nearly nine months ago. Since then, churches have done everything possible to abide by the guidelines of British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer. Because of the duty to love one’s neighbour, faith leaders understood the necessity of taking immediate action – many of them took steps to limit attendance and other church functions even before government protocols were mandated in March. The concept of “flattening of the curve” was taken seriously. But as the curve flattened, none of the restrictions on worship were removed, and no justification was given for their continuance.

The failure of politicians and health officers to loosen restrictions on worship services even when restrictions were loosened on everything else means this sudden overreach touches faith communities already feeling misunderstood and disrespected. The fact that movie theatres and restaurants can continue to operate makes the slap of this lockdown of corporate worship sting all the more.

To be clear, the church I serve in was diligent in attempting to dialogue with Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix, and Dr. Henry. Since the pandemic began, we have sent three separate letters to these authorities – each one respectfully asking for justification for the continued infringements on our freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. We have yet to receive a response.

In Canada, everyone has the fundamental freedoms of religion and of peaceful assembly protected by section 2(a) and 2(c) of the Charter. These freedoms protect the ministry and worship of all faiths. When the civil government infringes on Charter rights like freedom of peaceful assembly, the burden is on the civil government (not citizens) to demonstrate that the restrictions are justifiable in a free and democratic society.

With Dr. Henry’s announcement last week, placing a total prohibition on worship, the situation has become untenable. It is my hope that this week many churches will seriously consider making the decision that they cannot continue to abide by these unjustified infringements on our ability to do what God has commanded us to do.

As a Christian leader it is my sincere desire to obey the authorities in all lawful things. But at this time, we need to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). While we were willing to comply with the previous regulations, a complete prohibition on public worship (while theatres, gyms, and restaurants remain open) is not justifiable. We need to have the freedom to worship with the body of believers in the towns and cities in which we live. To cede the authority of the church to the civil government (in allowing them to forbid church leaders to call members to worship) would be an abdication of the authority that God has place in the leaders of His church.

God has commanded His people to worship Him regularly and corporately. This means the church has a task to do, and we intend to do it.

Mike Schouten is an elder in his local church in Yarrow. He is also the director of advocacy of ARPA (Association for Reformed Political Action) Canada

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