Voices January 07, 2021
We’re still waiting to hear why churches are closed to worship
By Brian Bird
As the second wave of COVID-19 swelled in Canada, a matching wave of restrictions emerged. While the rules have varied across the country, a common thread has been to keep commerce and essential services open and, to the extent possible, conducted in-person.
Gathering in-person for religious worship, however, has in certain provinces been severely limited. In B.C., religious gatherings have been banned throughout the province since the current restrictions were imposed on Nov. 19.
Religious gatherings in this province were already capped at 50 persons and subject to COVID-19 protocols before the second wave hit. There has been ample reporting on outbreaks and exposures at schools, restaurants, supermarkets and elsewhere. Gatherings in private residences were identified as a major cause of surging case counts. Religious worship, where protocols are followed, appeared to be generally unproblematic.
In a column published shortly after the current restrictions were announced, I argued that this context — along with the constitutional protection of religious freedom — demands a compelling explanation of a provincewide ban on religious worship while activities such as shopping, dining out and some fitness activities continue in-person. It’s also reasonable to ask, without taking anything away from their obvious value, why groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous may still meet in church basements while churchgoers can’t gather upstairs in similar numbers. What is the public health reason for barring a prayer group from meeting in a place of worship but allowing a support group to do so?
Dr. Bonnie Henry has explained the restrictions by citing some transmission of COVID-19 at some religious gatherings. Apart from the curious absence of any specificity on when, where and to what extent such transmission occurred, why does that threshold suffice to ban these gatherings but not dining out or retail shopping? There has been some transmission at some of these locations too. Dr. Henry has responded by saying that religious gatherings are riskier, but it’s genuinely hard to grasp how shopping at a crowded Costco is markedly safer than 50 people worshipping in spaces that often hold hundreds or more.
In further defence of the restrictions, Dr. Henry declared that faith is “not a building” or “about rights.” These are astonishing statements. Apart from the impropriety of state-sponsored theology lessons, the state has a solemn constitutional duty to care about rights. Banning in-person worship, an activity that sits at the heart of religious freedom, is a serious breach of this constitutional guarantee. The Constitution demands meaningful justification for this breach. Talking points aren’t enough.
These restrictions may be exposing a substantial degree of indifference among Canadians toward faith and a growing view that religion is of little value to individuals, let alone to society. There appears to be substantial support for the notion that virtual worship adequately substitutes for worshipping in-person, but many religious rites and obligations simply can’t be fulfilled virtually. In any event, COVID-19 has retaught all of us the value of being together in-person no matter the context. It’s wrong to suggest that religious gatherings are just as meaningful online while other gatherings are not.
One need not be religious to appreciate the value of faith to our society. Faith inspires many Canadians to do community service, philanthropy and charitable work. Faith gives many Canadians hope amid trials, including COVID-19. Faith is the school of many virtues that we all endorse. If we’re not religious, we may have friends and family who are. If we do, we know that their faith isn’t a hobby. It sits at the core of their identity, largely defining who they are and what they stand for. The Canadian and B.C. Civil Liberties Associations have criticized the restrictions on religious gatherings in this province, citing constitutional as well as mental-health concerns.
In fairness, Dr. Henry is onto something: Faith isn’t first and foremost about buildings or rights. But governments in Canada have rarely questioned the fundamental importance of sacred space to religious groups or the notion that meeting in these spaces for worship forms part of the essence of religious freedom. These questions –and the state action they can inspire – endanger a basic human right, and that should trouble all of us. Let us hope that, like the pandemic, the danger will soon pass.
Brian Bird is an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of B.C.
This article first appeared in The Vancouver Sun.