Churches in BC have been shut down since November 2020 and the current measures are indefinite. Last week two variance orders were issued, one allowing for indoor worship and one for outdoor.

But already the variance allowing indoor worship services has been suspended.

In a March 29 news release, Dr. Henry and Minister Dix announced that indoor gatherings, including worship services, including for Easter, are now banned. The ban is in effect until at least April 19.

This post will still look at all three orders that control worship services, in hopes that the indoor variance will become revived.

1. The Universal Order

BC’s most recent Gatherings & Events order (24 March 2021) continues to prohibit an “event” which includes a worship or other religious service. The order allows only:

  • Individual attendance at a place of worship for the purpose of prayer or quiet reflection (preamble, s K)
  • a person to be present at a private dwelling to provide religious services to an occupant (Part A, s 2(g))
  • an indoor wedding, baptism or funeral of no more than 10 people (Part D, s 1(d); s 2(b))
  • an outdoor funeral of no more than 50 people, conducted by a religious body (Part D, s 1(d); s 2(a))

These exceptions are subject to a list of other requirements such as having a COVID-19 safety plan, collecting contact information, maintaining physical distancing, controlling access to the event, implementing measures to prevent congregating, making hand sanitizers available, etc

2. Outdoor Worship Service Variance

This 5-page variance order outlines the rules for religious bodies that choose to hold worship services.

Number of Services

There is no limit on the number of outdoor services allowed.

Capacity Limits

Fifty people, as well as people in fifty vehicles can attend. People in vehicles aren’t allowed to get out. The only exception to the capacity limit is that 2 additional people may attend “for the purpose of ensuring compliance.”

Organizer Obligations

Organizers must caution high risk persons from attending (including for those over 70, even if they’ve been vaccinated), pre-register all participants (first and last name, phone number or email address of every person present), provide hand sanitation supplies, require each attendee to carry out a health check, maintain physical distancing, wear a face covering (subject to exemptions).

Worship Restrictions

Worship leaders, readers, soloists, musicians must wear a face covering. If there is a 3m separation or physical barrier, the face covering can be removed when speaking, singing or chanting. Because the order makes no mention of a pastor, priest, imam or rabbi, those roles are presumably included in the concept of “worship leader.”

Only worship leaders or soloists may sing or chant. Choirs are prohibited. Participants are prohibited from singing or chanting. The maximum number of musicians permitted is 5.

It’s not clear whether the singing prohibition applies to participants who attend in their vehicles.

Participants may stand 1.2m apart for up to 10 minutes for ritual congregation prayers if it is part of their religious practice.

Food or drink is permitted only if placed in a sanitary manner in single use containers.

Participants must not pass or share any items (collection plates, books, ceremonial objects).

Pre- and Post- Worship Service

Participants must not gather or engage socially before, during or after a worship service.

Participants must disperse immediately after a worship service.

Participants must not congregate.

Exclusion

The variance includes a funeral but not a wedding or baptism.

3. Indoor Worship Service Variance

*SUSPENDED UNTIL AT LEAST APRIL 19*

The 6-page variance order is very similar to the outdoor variance order but has some key differences which are noted below.

Four Days Only

For the 7-week period between Sunday, March 28 and Thursday, May 13, a religious body can select a maximum of 4 days on which to hold worship service(s), unless a local health area or community is excluded, as per the medical health officer, or Chief Medical Officer of the First Nations Health Authority.

Capacity Limits

Capacity is limited to the lesser of 10% of the worship space capacity or 50 people. This number includes any worship leaders, readers, soloists, volunteers, pastors, priests, etc.  The only exception to the capacity limit is that 2 additional people may attend “for the purpose of ensuring compliance.”

Organizer Obligations

Organizers must caution high risk persons from attending, pre-register all participants (first and last name, phone number or email address of every person present), provide hand sanitation supplies, require each attendee to carry out a health check, maintain physical distancing, wear a face covering (subject to exemptions).

Worship Restrictions

Worship leaders, readers, soloists, musicians must wear a face covering. If there is a 3m separation or physical barrier, the face covering can be removed when speaking, singing or chanting. Because the order makes no mention of a pastor, priest, imam or rabbi, those roles are presumably included in the concept of “worship leader.”

Only worship leaders or soloists may sing or chant. Choirs are prohibited. Participants are prohibited from singing or chanting. The maximum number of musicians permitted is 5.

Participants may stand 1.2m apart for up to 10 minutes for ritual congregation prayers if it is part of their religious practice.

Food or drink is permitted only if placed in a sanitary manner in single use containers.

Participants must not pass or share any items (collection plates, books, ceremonial objects).

Doors and windows should be kept open, if feasible.

Pre- and Post- Worship Service

Participants must not gather or engage socially before, during or after a worship service.

Participants must disperse immediately after a worship service.

Participants must not congregate.

The space must be cleaned, sanitized and ventilated after each service and before another starts.

Exclusion

The variance does not apply to weddings, baptisms or funerals.

What About the Rest of Canada?

BC’s approach to worship services stands in contrast to almost every other jurisdiction in Canada, which have allowed places of worship to open to varying degrees.

Alberta allows 15% of capacity; Manitoba the lower of 25% or 100 people; Ontario depends on the colour-coded zone, with grey at 15%, red/orange/yellow/green at 30%; Nova Scotia 50% up to 100 indoors. For a full listing, see this reference chart.

None require places of worship to select a pre-determined number of days on which to hold worship services.

This has caused some frustration amongst BC’s religious communities and caught the attention of both a national columnist in a recent opinion piece and a local church news site in an article summarizing views of a variety of BC church leaders.

In response to indefinite closures, many have tried to make “section 43 reconsideration” applications (including the Archdiocese of Vancouver; following which it filed a court application). Section 43 refers to section 43 of the Public Health Act. That section allows a person to request a reconsideration of orders, or variances to orders. It is difficult to assess whether these have been successful because it is an individual application process and decisions are not posted or shared publicly on a centralized platform. If the Archdiocese’s experience is indicative, it would suggest they have not been widely successful.

With indefinite orders and unpredictable or unsuccessful section 43 applications, many are looking at the gathering restrictions wondering what to do. While some churches are content and comfortable with virtual services, others may be questioning how to constructively and respectfully challenge the status quo.

If that’s you, here are some additional resources:

We know that for some a year of restrictions; but though we may be separated from one another we are not separated from the love of Christ. His promises are never rescinded, and nothing – no restriction, no virus, no order – not even life or death can separate us from His love. Even when we face disappointment or loss, we can know that our labour in the Lord – however limited it may be – is not in vain. We can take comfort because our God works all things together for the good of those who love Him. He is faithful, and He will do it!

Noteworthy is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Every organization’s circumstances are unique. Before acting on the basis of information contained in this blog, readers should consult with a qualified lawyer for advice specific to their situation.

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