BC Courts Grapple with Balancing Freedoms and Public Health

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Religion plays an important role in most people’s lives, even if only occasionally. Many will find themselves meeting with friends and families in a religious setting only during life’s major events—such as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. For others, these religious settings are frequently visited and allow them to actively participate in their religion and to benefit from belonging to a religious community. Regardless of whether people attend religious ceremonies and events regularly or only occasionally, freedom of religion is so fundamental to notions of identity and freedom itself that it is enshrined constitutionally in Canada’s Charter.[1] COVID-19 has presented new problems that have the potential to undermine religious freedoms—and British Columbia’s courts have wrestled with how to uphold these freedoms while the government works to prevent the spread of the virus.

In a March 2021 decision, the Supreme Court of British Columbia was faced with an issue that engaged Canadians’ freedom of religion in the context of COVID-19.[2] In this decision, the Court identifies many instances when gatherings in “religious settings” have resulted in the transmission of COVID-19, with many outbreaks.[3] The Court also notes that the Provincial Health Officer, under authority from the Public Health Act, has responded to the threat of COVID-19 by putting restrictions on gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus.[4] Ultimately, the Court engages an analysis of the COVID-19 restrictions, the Charter, and the effect of restrictions on religious freedoms and finds that British Columbia’s restrictions—although they do limit religious freedoms to some extent—are justified and thus not unconstitutional.

While the Supreme Court of British Columbia decided that the provincial government’s in-person worship restrictions were entirely appropriate, this is not necessarily the final word on the matter. Those seeking to challenge BC’s restrictions on in-person worship remain hopeful that the decision will be appealed, and that these restrictions will be lessened.[5] Furthermore, the changing status of COVID-19 in the province, and the government’s response to this, raises new questions about freedom of religion in such a rapidly-changing environment. On March 23rd, 2021, BC’s Provincial Health Officer announced a new health order, which allows for outdoor religious services to accommodate up to 50 people, as well as people in up to 50 vehicles. These reformulated rules are also accompanied by physical distancing, masking, and other requirements aimed to stall the spread of COVID-19.[6] While this is seen by many as a lessening of the previous restrictions, indoor services remain prohibited and the legality of these restrictions remains a live and contentious issue in BC.[7]

 

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch Student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.


[1] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 7, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11

[2] Beaudoin v British Columbia, 2021 BCSC 512.

[3] Ibid at 15-18.

[4] Ibid at 27-60.

[5] Simon Little, “B.C. churches won’t rule out appeal on ‘surprising’ ruling upholding in-person service ban”, Global News (19 March 2021), online: <https://globalnews.ca/news/7707908/b-c-churches-wont-rule-out-appeal-on-surprising-ruling-upholding-in-person-service-ban/>.

[6] Alyse Kotyk, “New COVID-19 rules permit outdoor religious services in B.C. with several limitations”, CTV News (24 March 2021), online: <https://bc.ctvnews.ca/new-covid-19-rules-permit-outdoor-religious-services-in-b-c-with-several-limitations-1.5360094>.

[7] Amy Judd, “COVID-19: Amended B.C. health order allows for outdoor religious gatherings”, Global News (24 March 2021), online: <https://globalnews.ca/news/7716055/bc-outdoor-religious-gatherings-covid-19/>.

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