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People leave the in-person Sunday service at Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack, B.C., on Feb. 21, 2021.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

On Christmas Eve, parishioners gathered in Our Saviour Lutheran Church in the southern Saskatchewan town of Fort Qu’Appelle. Services were offered at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., in adherence with the province’s pandemic health orders. There was hand sanitizer at the door, a number of pews were blocked off to ensure physical distancing, and a separate entrance and exit had been marked to avoid congestion at the doors.

There were just 15 people attending the early service, in a space that can seat 100. “We were all masked, there was no singing,” said Allan Chubb, who sat with his wife, Pat, in a pew they had to themselves.

A week later, Mr. Chubb was so sick he went to hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. It was only later that he learned that more than a dozen members of the small congregation had contracted the virus.

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The Saskatchewan Health Authority has concluded that the cases were linked to the services, but the church was not in violation of public-health orders. Rev. Joshua Kurtenbach, the pastor, has suspended in-person services since Jan. 8. He declined to comment about the outbreak at his church.

Mr. Chubb wonders how the virus could have spread despite all the precautions that were so carefully followed. They did touch the pews and the hymn books – perhaps, he mused, this was the source of the spread. The Chubbs, who have been members of the church for 14 years, are waiting for answers about what went wrong.

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Similar COVID-19 clusters have been tied to religious gatherings across the country, and worshippers have faced restrictions or outright bans on gatherings under ever-changing pandemic health orders. But the leaders of some churches in B.C. and Alberta are defying those orders, despite the risks.

RCMP said they are considering their next steps after observing that GraceLife Church, west of Edmonton, held a service on Sunday that was beyond the designated capacity.

The pastor, James Coates, remains in jail after ignoring restrictions on places of worship. In his sermon, associate pastor Jacob Spenst compared Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to Pontius Pilate – having washed his hands of injustice – because the province has limited such services to 15-per-cent capacity and required attendees to be masked.

GraceLife Church has been holding regular services with hundreds of parishioners for months, and health officials allege the church also ignored rules around physical distancing and masking. The church was fined in December and ordered closed, and Mr. Coates was charged earlier this month with violating public-health orders before his arrest last week on the same offence. He was denied bail, after refusing to agree to release conditions.

His lawyer, James Kitchen of the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said Mr. Coates will argue that any restrictions on the church’s ability to hold services violates several Charter rights, including freedoms of religion, assembly and association. The organization is involved in several legal challenges of pandemic measures. “We’re going to say there’s this rights violation, and it’s not justified,” Mr. Kitchen said in an interview.

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In British Columbia, RCMP also monitored church services in the Fraser Valley on Sunday. The province has suspended all in-person religious gatherings and worship services, but three churches have gone to B.C. Supreme Court seeking to have the ban lifted, arguing that the restrictions are unjustifiable infringements of their Charter rights. The three churches – Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, and Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack – continue to hold services.

“My clients are defiant, but not with bravado or chest-thumping, they are being quiet and respectful,” Paul Jaffe, the lawyer representing the Fraser Valley churches, said in an interview. “They are not indifferent to the public-health concerns.” He said his clients are conducting in-person services with all the same health measures required in other indoor settings in B.C. such as bars, restaurants, salons and retail shops.

“Implicit in the scope of the order is the notion that this virus becomes more dangerous, depending on the topic of discussion,” Mr. Jaffe said. “So you can sit in a bar and talk about the Canucks, but using the same precautions, you cannot talk about God.”

The B.C. Supreme Court will hear the constitutional challenge in March. On Feb. 17, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson rejected Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry’s application for an injunction, noting that the province has not exhausted its powers to enforce the province’s Protective Measures Order.

B.C.’s ban on religious gatherings is based on multiple instances where services turned into superspreader events. Dr. Henry’s office argues that religious settings can lead to elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission. That’s because they generally are held indoors, often involve the assembly of a large number of people from different households, and usually last for an extended duration, all of which results in greater duration of exposure and therefore a higher risk of infection and chance of viral spread.

Importantly, these types of gatherings often include older adults who are more at risk from COVID-19.

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There have also been churches elsewhere in the country that have defied or pushed back against public-health orders.

Several churches in Manitoba were fined last fall after holding in-person or drive-in services after all places of worship were ordered closed. The provincial government later amended the rules to allow drive-in services. There have also been fines against Ontario churches, including the Church of God in Aylmer, Ont., whose pastor has become a vocal anti-lockdown advocate.

Margot Young, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s law school, said the churches can easily demonstrate that their religious rights are being infringed upon, but she said governments have a strong case that those measures are justified under Section 1 of the Charter, which allows for “reasonable limits” on those rights.

Prof. Young said the courts tend to be deferential to governments, particularly when it comes to scientific evidence. “That kind of judgment call, in the case of an emergency or a pandemic, is probably a judgment call that the courts are going to be reluctant to second guess government experts on,” she said. “The Section 1 argument is a tough argument for the [churches] to rely on.”

While Saskatchewan has permitted limited religious services of up to 30 people, some church leaders voluntarily suspended gatherings as a precaution, after a series of revival meetings at the Full Gospel Outreach Centre in Prince Albert in September was linked to 174 cases of COVID-19.

Bishop Rob Hardwick, who heads the province’s Diocese of Qu’Appelle for the Anglican Church of Canada, said it was an especially difficult decision to suspend Christmas services to protect public health, but there has been a surprising upside: “The online worship has seen a remarkable number of viewers, much more than we would normally expect at an in-person worship service.”

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