While most church-goers across B.C. have foregone Sunday gatherings for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the most recent health order has banned indoor public gatherings altogether, a couple of Chilliwack churches are defiant.
Feeling unfairly targeted by the Nov. 19 public health order on indoor gatherings, and certain they have the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, pastors at Chilliwack Free Reformed Church and Free Grace Baptist Church held services on Nov. 21 and Nov. 22, two and three days after such gatherings were banned.
“The identification of what is and what is not an ‘essential service’ is certainly open for interpretation, but in short, we believe that churches are essential, and that Christians are commanded by God to attend public worship,” Pastor James Butler of Free Grace Baptist told The Chilliwack Progress in a statement Thursday (Nov. 26).
“Our convictions compel us to worship our God in the public gathering of his people and we must act in accordance with our conscience,” Pastor John Koopman said in a statement issued Friday (Nov. 27).
A concerned citizen, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash, shared photos of the full parking lot at Free Grace Baptist on Sunday. She pointed out that the vast majority of devout citizens have been practising faith from home, either on their own or with online sermons.
She said many people are even staying away from loved ones in order to protect all those in the community who could be impacted by the illness caused by COVID-19.
“As we take these measures to protect those working around us, we need to hold ourselves to the same standard, and face the same repercussions for blatant non-compliance.”
In a video of the Nov. 22 sermon posted online – that has since been edited – Pastor Butler started off by reading an email he received from Pastor Koopman about the service the day before. Butler said Koopman told him the RCMP attended in the parking lot and “the conversation went well.”
“I also asked him to leave our people alone and to give me a ticket if one was needed he said he was merely there for education and he would write a report for his staff sergeant,” Butler said Koopman wrote in his email.
“We told him that we we would be uncompromising and would continue to hold worship even if ticketed or imprisoned.”
In his statement to The Progress, Butler said the rationale to meet despite Dr. Bonnie Henry’s order of Nov. 19 was threefold: They believe Henry’s order exceeds the “authority under God;” “we cannot, in good conscience, prohibit the freedom of religion that the Charter protects”; and they believe in-person religious gather should be considered an essential service.
For his part, Koopman focused on the constitutional guarantee of “freedom of conscience and religion which includes peacefully gathering together to worship our God.”
He said further that if hockey games, restaurants, retail stores and schools are still open, churches should be allowed as well.
Asked about enforcement of public health orders, Fraser Health spokesperson Aletta Vanderheyden said they work with community partners, municipalities, WorkSafeBC and local police on education and enforcement of pandemic protocols. She said in cases of gatherings in large public areas like shopping malls, local Health Protection Services office can be called for complaints and they will work with operators on COVID-19 safety plan.
As for church gatherings?
“In this case, RCMP are responsible for enforcement.”
Asked about that enforcement, Chilliwack RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Mike Rail said respecting prevention orders from health authorities are “not optional,” but that the RCMP start with education.
“Our focus continues to be on education rather than enforcement, however should circumstances dictate, police have the authority to carry out enforcement of the provincial public health orders, to help ensure compliance and therefore public safety,” Rail said.
While the vast majority of churches have moved to online sermons only, Koopman and Butler are not alone in their pushback to the bans on worship gatherings. In an op-ed sent to The Chilliwack Progress, an elder at a church in Yarrow encouraged civil disobedience in this regard.
“God has commanded His people to worship Him regularly and corporately,” Mike Schouten wrote. “This means the church has a task to do, and we intend to do it.”
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