As pandemic restrictions intensify across much of the country amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, some churches are defying lockdown orders and receiving hefty fines in return.
At least three churches in British Columbia held services over the weekend, despite the province’s ban on all in-person faith-related gatherings introduced in November.
Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley was fined $2,300 over the weekend after participants at Sunday service declined to disperse when asked to do so by police.
Brent Smith, pastor of Riverside, said they decided to continue in-person services because “people want the support that they aren’t getting” due to ongoing pandemic-related restrictions. He said the church should be able to hold services if they can follow safety measures in line with other businesses that are allowed to remain open under provincial health guidelines. Restaurants, bars, and gyms can currently stay open if they follow safety protocols.
“We believe that we’re called as a church to gather together and the restrictions we’ve seen against the church have been inconsistent with what’s been able to stay open,” he told The Epoch Times.
“We are following health and safety measures and believe we shouldn’t have to forego in-person services for online services.”
In November, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry introduced new limits on in-person gatherings as part of a wider effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus causes. To date, 441 people have died of the virus in B.C., including 46 over the past weekend. There were 8,855 active COVID-19 cases in B.C. on Dec. 1.
Last week, Henry said outbreaks have occurred in multiple faith-related locations in the province despite safety measures. She said events that were deemed safe even a few weeks ago now threaten the most vulnerable people who attend them, as well as risking community transmission. The province has encouraged faith groups to meet virtually instead of in person.
"It is a cruel irony in many ways that when we most need to be with people, that is the most dangerous thing that we can do with this level of transmission we are seeing in communities across the province,'' she said in a press briefing on Nov. 27.
Nevertheless, Smith said the church plans to continue in-person services and is not ruling out taking legal action on the issue.
“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,” he said.
B.C. and Manitoba are the only provinces that have banned in-person religious gatherings altogether, while most other regions have opted to instead cap limits on attendees to ensure physical distancing, along with other safety measures.
Manitoba health authorities are facing growing opposition from some church groups amid strict lockdowns that include the temporary banning of drive-in church services.
Hundreds of worshippers attended outdoor drive-in services at two southern Manitoba churches over the past weekend, despite bans that limit outdoor gatherings to less than five people. Drive-in religious services are included in Manitoba’s pandemic gathering restrictions, with Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin saying any large gatherings can put people at risk.
On Dec. 1, Roussin said the province has issued six tickets, worth $1,296 each, to worshippers who attended a church service at the Church of God Restoration near Steinbach, Man., this past weekend, which ended in a tense standoff after police blocked cars from entering the church parking lot for the planned drive-in service. Springs Church in Winnipeg was also issued several fines in relation to four drive-in church services that attracted hundreds of cars.
The Church of God Restoration was also recently fined $5,000—the maximum allowed under the province’s public health act—after holding an in-person service days after the province had banned all faith-based gatherings amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The church had intended to continue in-person services but later backed down after repeated visits from police, opting for the drive-in service in the church’s parking lot instead. Senior Pastor Henry Hildebrandt said despite pushback from authorities, they plan to continue with drive-in services.
“Our plans are to go forward with drive-in services for the time being. They are safe, why is there a problem? Is this about controlling a faith based group or keeping people safe from a virus?” he said.
In a previous interview, Hildebrandt questioned why religious services weren’t considered “essential” while “liquor, cannabis, department and big box stores” were allowed to remain open.
“This principle is not just about in-person services—this is a wholesale attack on faith and the freedom of the church to do its God-called duty,” he said, adding that fundamental freedoms are being eroded “at a historically alarming rate.”
With files from The Canadian Press