Photo Credit: Karl Fredrickson via Unsplash

 

As we close in on a year of intermittent lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and other restrictions related to COVID-19, people are understandably becoming increasingly agitated and anxious for life to return to normal.

 

While recent case numbers have been trending downwards after a 28-day stay-at-home order here in Ontario, the delays to vaccine rollout and the arrival of more contagious COVID-19 variants seem to indicate normalcy is not necessarily on the horizon.

As a result of this, stories have been popping up about churches across the country who have knowingly and brazenly defied COVID-19-related gathering restrictions. Some have even filed or threaten to file constitutional challenges against the restrictions.

 

But here’s why they’re wrong to do so.

 

Many have pointed to the fact that big box stores, grocery stores and liquor stores have been able to remain open at nearly full capacity as a reason why churches should be allowed to be open too; for the sake of fairness. While I think nearly everyone can agree that the lax restrictions on these stores has been a joke, the answer isn’t to open everything else too, it should be to make those stores safer like everywhere else.

 

Those trying to claim there’s a constitutional challenge to be made here are also likely going to be out of luck. If you ask me, someone who is definitely not a lawyer or constitutional expert, it seems pretty clear cut as to why. 

 

The claim is that it infringes on some of the fundamental freedoms outlined in S.2 of the Charter, namely the freedom of religion and freedom of peaceful assembly.

 

While yes, by design, the gathering restrictions don’t allow people to congregate and worship in person, this argument seems to conveniently forget S.1 of the Charter, the limitations clause. This clause importantly says that you are guaranteed the rights and freedoms that are laid out in the Charter, but only to a reasonable limit, outlined by law.

 

This seems to be where any constitutional challenge to these laws starts and ends. Most would argue that a global pandemic, which threatens the lives of millions of people here in Canada alone, is a just enough cause to place a reasonable limit on your Charter rights and freedoms. 

 

It’s also important to note that churches are not barred from offering their services. It is perfectly legal for churches to do whatever they would like online. Nobody is saying that virtual services are the same as in-person or that this is a permanent replacement for in-person services, but it is clearly a reasonable limit that has been put in place to deal with the issue at hand. 

 

Here in Ontario, churches are still allowed to have 10 people indoors, which means that they can still broadcast their services from their physical churches, albeit with a limited staff. That doesn’t seem like a violation of rights and freedoms to me.

 

While some advocacy groups and constitutional lawyers have come forward in support of these cases (maybe because they see a big payday in their future) the constitutionality of these measures seems pretty clear cut.

 

Generally speaking, police forces have been restrained when it comes to these individual churches and it’s tough to blame them for that. There’s a fine line to walk when it comes to this issue. On the one hand, many of these churches that are violating restrictions would love nothing more than for the police to walk them out and fine them. The optics of that would give them ammunition for their arguments against the restrictions. On the other hand, letting these churches off the hook or even making it seem like they got off easy could encourage others who may be on the fence to take similar action. 

 

It’s also important to consider the real health and safety implications, the reason the laws were made in the first place. 

 

Many of the churches that have defied the orders have been of the “plandemic” persuasion, so when they have held their indoor services they have not been wearing masks or physically distancing. Given that most church-going people tend to be older, this is incredibly risky behaviour that puts countless lives at risk; not just of those at the church either, but their families and those who they interact with at work, at stores, etc. 

 

It’s important to reiterate that this is only being done by a small handful of churches. However, as the pandemic drags on, it’s possible that more may join in over time. 

 

The desire to defy public health restrictions to offer in-person services is lost on me. We know that this would put a large swath of the church-going population at serious risk. To claim that churches are being unfairly targeted during this time is also unfair, as restrictions have been equal for all faith groups and there exists a perfectly legal alternative way to offer services in the meantime.

 

Going forward, I hope that cooler heads prevail on this issue. It seems clear to me that a major face-off could be avoided here if we all just remember to love our neighbour as ourself, which means respecting the health restrictions that have been put in place.