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Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province at the Legislature in Victoria, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s health officer says her order to suspend in-person religious gatherings to help slow the spread of COVID-19 is not unconstitutional and that she will not change it after three churches in the Fraser Valley defied it on the weekend.

RCMP fined one of them $2,300.

Bonnie Henry said some “high-profile people” who she did not identify are trying to create “consternation,” but that most faith leaders have been strong in their support for doing the right thing during a global pandemic.

“I will always be accused of doing too much or not enough, that’s our life right now. I do not believe, at all, that we are affecting people’s ability to [practise their religion] under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” she said, citing recent comments from Pope Francis that churches should lead the way in co-operation with public-health orders. “This is about taking those measures to protect people from this virus and no more so than when we come together as a community indoors right now that puts people at risk.”

On the weekend, the Pope said Christian churches and other religions “have a primary duty to offer an example of dialogue, mutual respect and practical co-operation.”

Dr. Henry said many faith leaders have restricted their services to a digital format.

A church in Langley, B.C., was fined $2,300 on the weekend after the congregation declined to disperse when asked to do so by the RCMP. Police said it was the first such measure the force has taken in B.C. during the pandemic.

Langley RCMP Corporal Holly Largy said in an interview that police visited the Riverside Calvary Chapel after municipal bylaw officers reported a service was under way.

Cpl. Largy said the force is ultimately interested in education in such cases. “Unfortunately, that isn’t something they were willing to comply with.”

Brent Smith, pastor of Riverside, said chapel leaders are not ruling out legal action.

“We have a team of lawyers that are preparing a statement and will be representing us on these matters. We certainly are not looking for a fight, we just believe there has been many inconsistencies with what is essential and we simply desire to worship our Lord in a safe and Biblical way,” Mr. Smith said in a statement.

On Sunday in Chilliwack, further east in the Fraser Valley, RCMP officers acted on reports that two congregations held services, visiting them to discuss the situation.

RCMP Sergeant Krista Vrolyk said police hoped to reach agreements with the churches to comply, but the congregations refused. She said police will work with other parties, including the Crown, to decide what to do.

Law professor Eric Adams of the University of Alberta said Dr. Henry is on solid constitutional footing.

Prof. Adams said preventing and limiting religious gatherings infringes on freedom of religious expression and beliefs protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, he added that the “extraordinary circumstance” of the pandemic allows for compelling public policy justifications to restrict those freedoms.

J. Michael Miller, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, has pointed out that not one of 78 parishes has been the location of a community outbreak of the virus.

“In light of this record within the Archdiocese, it is puzzling to say the least to comprehend why our facilities can be used – and we are delighted that they are – for meetings such as AA in the basement, while not even limited worship can take place upstairs in the church,” he said in a Nov. 22 statement.

On Monday, however, the Archdiocese issued a statement saying the Archbishop had a “very productive” phone call with Health Minister Adrian Dix last week “to discuss the goal of reopening Catholic churches to public worship while keeping British Columbians safe during the pandemic.”

Further talks are scheduled for Dec. 2.

Rev. Dr. Richard Topping, principal of the Vancouver School of Theology, said limits on in-person worship provide opportunities for a wider-than-usual communication of faith.

In an interview, the Presbyterian minister cited the vast reach of online services.

“I’ve led worship in Montreal and Barrie, Ont., from my desk, either by recording or online by Zoom,” he said.

“There’s opportunities here that shouldn’t be missed for simply complaining we can’t meet in person. The reach of the church is extended.”

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