Empty pews are pictured as assistant pastor Father Felix Min performs a Easter Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s in Vancouver Sunday, April 12, 2020. The Easter service was closed to the congregation and to the public to attend in person at they church but was live streamed to the internet. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

OPINION: Worship services should be considered essential services

Limiting religious services to 50-or-fewer people is an infringement of Charter rights

By Levi Minderhoud

Imagine that, over the past couple of months, you have devoured most of the food in your kitchen. You, your spouse, and your children are growing hungry. You drive to the local grocery store. But when you walk up to the entrance, an attendant says, “sorry, COVID-19 restrictions require us to only allow 50 people into our store at a time. We are already at our legal 50-person capacity. Please sign your name to the bottom of this waiting list and we’ll call you next week when it is your turn to enter the grocery store.”

You return home hungry.

Of course, we all recognize this scenario as absurd – some things cannot wait for another day. While following rules and taking precautions are necessary during a pandemic, essential services must continue for the good of society.

This denial of basic necessities is not so different from what is happening to people of faith throughout British Columbia. Although grocery stores, hospitals, and many other sectors of the economy deemed “essential” are not subject to a cap of 50 persons on their premises, this restriction continues to apply to worship services. But worship services are an essential service to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and other faith groups across the province.

In the Bible, Jesus says that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Christians require more than food, medical treatment, or employment income to thrive. Christians thrive by hearing the Word of God and by gathering together with fellow believers.

• READ MORE: B.C. faith leaders, Horgan discuss need for virtual religious ceremonies

• READ MORE: COVID-19: B.C. church services resume with public health limits

The Apostle Paul also describes how members of the church are like parts of the body. The human body cannot thrive if major parts of it are missing. Similarly, a church cannot thrive if a majority of its members are missing. Weekly, in-person worship services are a vital opportunity to hear this life-giving Word of God and participate in the sacraments.

The case for the essential nature of worship services was recently made in an open letter sent to Premier Horgan, Health Minister Dix, and Provincial Health Officer Henry. This request to Expand BC Worship Services was signed by 143 churches in British Columbia in early June. That letter, to date, remains unanswered.

Some people, perhaps including our leaders in British Columbia, may doubt that corporate worship services are essential, but this mentality betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian religion. Just as medical treatment is to the injured, food is to the hungry, and work is to the unemployment, so the participation in collective worship services – hearing the preaching of God’s word, receiving the promise of baptism, participating in holy communion, praising God collectively in song and prayer, and fellowshipping with other believers – is to the spiritually deprived Christian.

Although Christians can derive some benefit from online worship services or in small groups, such worship services are akin to feeding someone a bread-only diet for months. It will sustain a person for a while, but it will eventually result in serious health complications. Similarly, Christians are starving for the nourishment that comes from full worship services.

I recognize that, given the reality of COVID-19, mass gatherings remain limited in general. But worship services are not just typical gatherings. Nor are they hobbies akin to yoga. Although worship services are considered similar to concerts, sporting events, and festivals in the explicit order against mass gatherings, worship services are categorically different than these activities in that they are – or are supposed to be –constitutionally protected, and doubly so.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of religion, both of which are seriously infringed upon by the limit of 50 people for worship services. According to these freedoms, British Columbians have a double constitutional right to attend religious worship services. They do not have a similar constitutional right to camp overnight, attend a movie theatre, dine at a restaurant, or stay in a hotel. Yet, Phase 3 of British Columbia’s Opening Plan removes restrictions on these activities, while maintaining the cap of 50 people at a worship service, even when some churches can seat thousands.

In light of the essential and Charter-protected nature of worship services, the leaders of British Columbia’s pandemic response should immediately change the Order of the Provincial Health Officer on Mass Gatherings to specifically allow for larger worship services. Raising the limit of people to 100 or allowing a certain percentage (e.g. 50%) of a church’s capacity to gather for worship would be a good first step, and in line with what other provinces are successfully doing.

As much of society re-opens around us, the provincial government must trust churches to operate safely and cautiously. It’s time for people of faith to declare that our spiritual food, distributed in weekly worship services, must not be rationed. It’s time for the provincial government to respect the freedom of the hundreds of thousands of people of faith in our province. It’s time to expand worship services in British Columbia.

Levi Minderhoud is the B.C. manager of the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), a Christian political advocacy organization.

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