Vancouver: A lawyer for British Columbia’s attorney general says provincial public health orders do not single out or ban all in-person religious services.
Jacqueline Hughes told the B.C. Supreme Court that individual worship and drive-in events are permitted, subject to certain conditions, while weddings, funerals and baptisms may include no more than 10 guests.
She says provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has the statutory powers during an emergency to issue orders she reasonably believes are necessary to prevent and mitigate further harm from a health hazard.
Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Hughes says Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place and she has made efforts to consult faith leaders while weighing their rights against data about COVID-19 cases in the province.
Paul Jaffe, counsel for a group of petitioners that includes three Fraser Valley churches, has argued Henry’s orders reflect a value judgment.
He said Friday his clients have been subjected to discriminatory treatment compared with other worship groups, such as Orthodox Jewish synagogues granted exemptions to hold weekly indoor services on the Sabbath.
Meanwhile, he said, there has been no change in the degree to which Henry’s orders infringe on his clients’ charter right to freedom of religion from the time they were made last November.
Jaffe has said his clients _ which include the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack _ have adopted safety measures similar to those approved by Henry in places that remain open.
He works with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based legal advocacy group that’s also asking the court to dismiss tickets of up to $2,300 each for alleged violations of the public health orders.
Hughes told the court on Friday “there’s no absolute rule that constitutionally protected interests must be preferred to those that are just pressing and substantial” in matters such as the request for a judicial review of Henry’s orders.
The only requirements, she said, are that any balance struck is reasonable, that “sincere religious practice” is accommodated where possible, and that religious and non-religious beliefs are treated neutrally.
“We say Dr. Henry understood these requirements and applied them to best of her ability,” Hughes told Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson.