One Smithers area church has been fined for non-compliance with public health orders and two more will be.
Smithers Staff Sgt. Terry Gillespie said Bethel Reformed Church was issued a $2,300 ticket for holding an indoor service contrary to a ban on such gatherings that went into effect Nov. 19, 2020 and was upheld by the B.C. Supreme Court March 18.
He said similar charges are pending for another Smithers church and one in Telkwa.
Bethel Pastor Simon Lievaart said that while the church knew they were non-compliant, they worked with health authorities to ensure everybody’s safety.
“Northern Health has been excellent, they have visited us and let us know that we are not in compliance with the health orders and have offered to help us ensure things are done safely,” he said. “The reality of the situation is that as a council we believe God calls the members to gather in worship, and yet the government does not allow it.”
Since the original prohibition of in-person worship took effect, Smithers area churches, including Bethel, have been live streaming services, but Lievaart said while that works for some people, it is a disaster for others and simply not an option for some.
“As a council, we do not believe it is right to turn people away, and we believe we can protect public health risk by putting in place reasonable restrictions, which we have done.”
While the fine was not unexpected, Lievaart said he was personally saddened by it.
“Of course, there is no surprise that if one is breaking a public health order they should expect a fine,” he said. “However, believers are not gathering to serve themselves, not for entertainment, nor recreation, it is not a protest or an excuse to fellowship, but they gather to worship God, to receive spiritual support, to support others and to be equipped to better serve God and community.”
Bans on worship services have been challenged on constitutional grounds across the country, including in B.C. where there is an ongoing case in the B.C. Court of Appeal.
In January, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a national legal advocacy organization, on behalf of three Lower Mainland churches and four individuals, challenged a lower court decision upholding the November 2020 prohibition on public protests and in-person worship.
In March, the B.C. Supreme Court struck down the ban on protests, but dismissed the challenge on in-person worship. The Justice Centre filed a new appeal March 31.
Lievaart said Bethel will not fight their individual ticket, but support the court cases currently underway in various provinces.
The bottom line, he said, is that believers do not see gathering for worship as non-essential.
“Jesus compares his ministry to a doctor who treats the sick. The church is often compared to a hospital for sinners. It is a place where broken, needy people like me come to learn of and be reminded of the help and purpose we have beyond anything in this world. Our country will be a better place when the churches are able to serve the people with God’s message of hope.”
Places of worship will be able to do that starting this weekend with some limitations. On May 26, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, came to terms with faith leaders amid dramatically dropping COVID-19 case numbers and an increasing vaccination rate.
The limit for in-person services is 50 people observing the standard protocols (i.e., masks, physical distancing, hand sanitizing etc.).
Lievaart said he is pleased with the 50-person limit for his own church, but felt for much larger congregations the limit should be based on a percentage of capacity.