A return to religious gatherings is in the works as outdoor services will be permitted in the coming days, while discussions are underway for a return to in-person activities by April, according to B.C.’s top health official.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, made the announcement during Monday’s COVID-19 briefing, noting a process is underway to determine a gradual return to regular indoor in-person faith services.
Dr. Henry says restrictions will be lifted to permit small outdoor religious services in the next few days, while further consultations are underway to permit religious gatherings and observances for Easter and Passover.
“Over the past weeks, we’ve been working on how we can safely reopen in-person faith services, as I know how challenging it has been for many people not to be able to congregate with those who are in their faith community,” said Dr. Henry.
In-person religious services were prohibited following a sweeping order banning indoor gatherings last November amid rising daily COVID-19 case counts.
Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison has been calling for a return to in-person faith services since late February, and pointed to a recently approved plan from Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe that facilitates a return to indoor faith observances.
Morrison recently sent a letter to Dr. Henry advocating for a similar outcome.
“I would like to thank Minister Dix and Dr. Henry for their efforts to keep our communities safe,” said Morrison, in a statement. “Further, I welcome their leadership as they consider safely re-opening these important community organizations so that places of worship might be positioned to offer the help that is so desperately needed.”
The restrictions on indoor gatherings, particularly involving religious services, has served as a flash point since last fall. Three churches in the Fraser Valley drew media attention by defying the order and holding in-person services, which drew an RCMP presence and resulted in fines of over $18,000.
Earlier this year, a group of petitioners initiated a legal challenge seeking to quash the public health orders prohibiting in-person religious services, while the province sought an injunction that would enforce the public health orders.
In February, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Hinkson ruled that there were other means of enforcement available to the province, noting that an injunction alone — without enforcement by the B.C. Prosecution Service — wouldn’t necessarily sway the religious beliefs of the petitioners or prevent them from continuing in-person services.
Following the court’s decision, Dr. Henry said in a statement that she respected the ruling and expressed confidence that the public health orders were in accordance with the law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The broader challenge arguing infringed religious freedoms resulting from the orders continued to be argued in the courts, before Hinkson reserved his decision earlier in March.