Sunday, December 18, 2022

British Columbia's COVID Restrictions on Worship Services Upheld

In Beaudoin v. Attorney General of British Columbia, (BC Ct. App., Dec. 16, 2022), the highest court in the Canadian province of British Columbia upheld 2020 and 2021 COVID orders of BC's Provincial Health Officer that prohibited in-person worship services.  The court concluded that the Gathering and Events Order did not violate §15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects the equality rights of the churches that were plaintiffs in the suit, saying in part:

[T]he G&E orders did not create any distinction based on the religious or non-religious nature of the setting in question. Any distinction between settings permitted to remain open and those required to close was based on epidemiological data and the PHO’s assessment—supported by provincial, national and international data and experience—that the level of risk of viral transmission was unacceptably high in certain types of settings or gatherings involving certain types of activities. The risks associated with retail and other permitted activities—typically involving more transient contact between individuals of a transactional nature—were determined to be different than the risks associated with the activities that form an essential component of in-person religious worship and the celebration of faith.

The court also concluded that plaintiffs' religious freedom rights under §2 of the Charter were not infringed, saying in part:

In my view, the limitation on the religious freedom of the appellants stemming from the G&E orders has been shown to be a proportionate one in light of the unprecedented risk to public health that arose during the second wave of the virus, the need to take precautions to stop preventable deaths from occurring, and the need to protect the capacity of the healthcare system....

[T]here was an ample evidentiary basis upon which the PHO could reasonably conclude that, when faith-based communities gathered for worship, the risk of transmission was unacceptably high.... [O]bservance of the liturgy requires a spiritual communion of faith that involves participation of the congregation in physically intimate acts—sharing communion, prayer, and song. These activities were known to be associated with a heightened risk of transmission.... [T]here is no proper basis upon which a reviewing court could interfere with the scientific determinations underlying the PHO’s orders....

CBC News reports on the decision.