Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend Sunday service, in Chilliwack, B.C., Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. British Columbia’s top doctor says she is thankful a petition challenging her COVID-19 orders in B.C. Supreme Court has been dismissed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend Sunday service, in Chilliwack, B.C., Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. British Columbia’s top doctor says she is thankful a petition challenging her COVID-19 orders in B.C. Supreme Court has been dismissed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C.’s top doctor ‘thankful’ as court ruling upholds public health orders

Dr. Henry says officials working with religious groups to plan gradual return to in-person services

British Columbia’s top doctor says she is thankful a petition challenging her COVID-19 orders in B.C. Supreme Court has been dismissed.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says in a statement on Friday she is thankful for Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson’s “thoughtful decision upholding public health orders in regards to religious gatherings.”

Health officials have regularly engaged with faith leaders throughout the pandemic and they’re working together to develop plans for a safe and gradual return to in-person religious services, she added.

A group of three Fraser Valley churches sought to hold in-person services, which have mostly been banned since November, and filed a petition in January arguing Henry’s orders infringed on their right to religious freedom.

Paul Jaffe, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued in hearings earlier this month the infringements were unjustifiable.

Hinkson agreed the petitioners’ rights were infringed, but found it was justified as Henry’s orders struck a “reasonable and proportionate” balance between their constitutional rights and her statutory power and responsibility to protect people during the pandemic.

“Against the serious risks that are associated with the pandemic, she is obliged to balance a wide variety of competing rights and interests of British Columbians and visitors to our province,” he says in a written ruling.

“Her decision was made in the face of significant uncertainty and required highly specialized medical and scientific expertise.”

Hinkson noted Henry “carefully considered the significant impacts” of her orders on religious freedom, consulting with faith communities and allowing forms of worship such as individual meetings with religious leaders.

“Her orders are limited in duration and constantly revised and reassessed to respond to current scientific evidence and epidemiological conditions.”

Jaffe had told the court the petitioners — which included the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack — adopted safety protocols similar to those approved by Henry in places that remain open.

He says in a statement the Calgary-based legal advocacy group will discuss the decision with its clients, including the prospect of an appeal.

The centre says it’s pleased that Hinkson ruled in favour of an individual petitioner, Alain Beaudoin of Dawson Creek, finding Henry’s orders unjustifiably violated his right to public protest.

Beaudoin had also petitioned the court to quash a $2,300 violation ticket he received after helping to organize a protest last December over what he argued was an abuse of government power through COVID-19 rules.

Hinkson declined to overturn the ticket, agreeing with lawyers for Henry and the province that he should not rule on its validity without access to the factual background that resulted in the ticket being issued.

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