Kelowna church one of several challenging public health order

Churches heading to court

The Kelowna church that was handed a $2,300 fine for defying provincial health orders last month is one of a number of religious groups challenging the order in court.

Late last week, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed a petition in B.C.'s Supreme Court arguing Dr. Bonnie Henry's order prohibiting indoor social gatherings and events, including in-person church services, is unconstitutional.

The organization says they're representing seven B.C. churches and nine other individuals, after more than a dozen $2,300 tickets were issued to B.C. faith organizations and individuals. Their clients include the Kelowna Harvest Fellowship and pastor Heather Lucier.

The local church was handed a $2,300 ticket for holding an in-person service on Dec. 19, but Lucier told Castanet the fine would not stop them from holding services. They have continued to hold-in person services, and they were visited by police again on Sunday during one of them. The attending officer did not issue another ticket though.

“In-person worship services have been completely prohibited, regardless of the extra safety measures implemented by the faith community,” the Justice Centre said in a statement.

“Pastors and faith communities have been issued whopping fines for holding religious services despite having gone to extraordinary lengths to comply with health guidelines, including limiting attendance to no more than 50 persons, pre-registering attendees, rearranging seating to ensure physical distancing, providing hand sanitizer and masks and enhancing cleaning and sanitizing procedures.”

In the petition to the courts, the Justice Centre argues the order infringes on a number of sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right of citizens to protest and to gather for religious worship and puts the onus on government to show that any infringement of Charter freedoms is justified in the circumstances,” said Marty Moore, Justice Centre staff lawyer.

“Individuals across the province of B.C. have been issued significant fines for responsibly exercising their fundamental Charter rights and freedoms. The Justice Centre’s legal team will be challenging each of these tickets in court. COVID-19 does not cancel Canadians’ constitutional rights.”

The organization argues that eight violation tickets should be dismissed, but it's unclear whose tickets the petition is referring to. The petition the Justice Centre has posted online has had any identifying information redacted.

Meanwhile, the organizer of the most recent protest against COVID-19 measures in downtown Kelowna on Saturday was issued a $2,300 ticket by police. The same fine was handed to David Lindsay for organizing the protest last month, but it's unclear if Lindsay was the recipient of the most recent ticket.

The Justice Centre's petition also argues tickets for protesting infringe on Canadian Charter rights as well, although the organization does not list Lindsay as a client.

It's unknown when the petition will be heard in court, but the Justice Centre estimates it will take two days to present their argument.

Last week, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry extended the ban on all indoor social gatherings and events of any kind by an extra month. The ban includes all in-person religious services, but allows for "individual activities such as contemplation or personal prayer." 

The order will remain in place until at least Feb. 5. 

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