B.C. court case for churches open during COVID lockdowns alleges religious bias and dishonesty from Bonnie Henry

A lawyer representing three Fraser Valley churches that received fines for holding services during COVID-19 restrictions argues the province's orders were discriminatory and showed an arrogant disregard of churches while granting synagogues exclusive accommodations.

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This week, three Fraser Valley churches that were persecuted for safely offering indoor worship — despite the state's COVID-19 orders forbidding them from doing so — are in court for an abuse of process hearing. During a time when British Columbians could go to pubs and indoor amusement parks, Abbotsford’s Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church, Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel, and Chilliwack’s Free Reformed Church were collectively slapped with over 40 fines for practicing their religion.

On June 13, which was day one of what is expected to be a 12-day hearing, I caught up with lawyer Paul Jaffe, who is contracted by the Justice Centre of Constitutional Freedoms to represent the churches, outside of the Chilliwack Law Courts.

In 2021, the JCCF also represented the three churches alongside a man named Alain Beaudoin, who had been fined for peacefully protesting during the declared pandemic, in a constitutional challenge focusing on the plaintiffs' right to freedoms of religion and assembly.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favour of British Columbians having the right to peacefully assemble in protest during COVID, but that the restrictions against religious gatherings were reasonable.

This week’s hearing, however, shifts away from a constitutional argument and instead focuses on whether Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s conduct was ethical and performed in good faith while making the orders that restricted Christians from gathering and worshipping together even with accommodations.

“Unknown to all of the churches, some of whom we act for, Dr. Henry had recognized that worship gatherings outside were low risk and admissible for the synagogues,” said Jaffe, adding that such information was never made known to the churches.

“We found out during the process of litigation that they had accommodated the synagogues, which is great because they should have, but they did nothing for the churches,” he continued.

According to Jaffe, another reason his clients are raising the abuse of process motion is because within days of each other, “the synagogues were granted permission to worship indoors on the basis that the COVID cases were going down and the safety protocols were more than enough to make it a low-risk event,” whereas at the same time, when Jaffe was representing the churches in Supreme Court, the state issued a notice for the case that “worshipping indoors was unsafe relying on the same data but arriving at the opposite conclusion.”

In November 2022, Chilliwack Free Reformed Church Pastor John Koopman was found guilty of hosting an indoor worship centre in 2020. Jaffe’s other clients' convictions and potential sentences are contingent on the outcome of this abuse of process case.

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  • By David Menzies

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