Masses in B.C. churches, like St. Matthew’s Church in Surrey, B.C., above, have resumed with a maximum of 50 people. CNS photo/Matthew Furtado, The B.C. Catholic

JCCF fighting pandemic worship restrictions across Canada

By 
  • June 3, 2021

Provincial governments across Canada are presenting faith adherents with rays of hope by unveiling roadmaps and timelines on the lifting of public worship restrictions heading into the summer months.

Ultimately, these scenarios will come to fruition if the vaccination rates and the trajectory of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit goals set by provincial health departments.

These guidelines are not enough for some who want to return to their places of worship, sooner and more fully. And they have an ally in the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a legal advocacy group headquartered in Calgary, that has not deviated from one fixed target: an end to all lockdown restrictions.

JCCF lawyer Marty Moore says the centre strives to restore all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has ongoing and pending legal actions in five provinces to end public health restrictions it deems in violation of the Charter.

Freedom of conscience and religion happens to be the first liberty mentioned in section 2 of the Charter, even before freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Moore says this freedom is “not being respected” by Canadian leaders.

“I think across the country the treatment of religious groups throughout this period of the pandemic shows our government’s lack of respect for the basic principles of the Charter,” said Moore. “We are a pluralistic society and many are not people of faith, but our elected representatives are showing a tremendous disregard for people of faith — particularly in B.C. — (that) is really alarming and should be a concern for everyone.”

Moore is hoping to not only re-unite churches with their congregations, he said he seeks a restoration of freedom in Canada.

“Canada needs a restored culture of freedom. There needs to be a respect and a demarcation that government is not the all-powerful institution in our society and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “A free society respects the role of faith communities, and the role and responsibility of faith communities to protect their own membership. I have not met a single faith community that isn’t concerned about the health of its members.”

The legal battles in a few faith communities heated up in Alberta with the arrests of three religious leaders in 2021, including two over the past month.

Pastor Artur Pawlowski of Street Church Ministries and the Fortess (Cave) of Adullam was arrested alongside his brother Dawid during a rally May 8 for organizing and promoting “an illegal in-person gathering.” This came a month after he went viral for labeling Calgary Police Service, Alberta Health Services and city bylaw officers as “Nazis,” “Gestapo” and “communists” while preventing them from disrupting an Easter Sunday service. He was ultimately released from the Calgary Remand Centre on May 10.

On May 16, Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church was arrested for repeatedly holding church services in violation of the ongoing restrictions. JCCF secured Stephens’ release on May 18, one day after AHS ordered the closure of the church. The JCCF achieved a win May 28 as the AHS abandoned its contempt of court application against Stephens. Fresh off the victory, Stephens celebrated a liturgical service two days later despite the closure order still standing.

JCCF also represents Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, Alta., who was jailed Feb. 16 to March 22 for violating health regulations. He is set to return to court June 7.

Moore himself is primarily involved in fighting the ban on public worship services in B.C., with its closure decree enacted on Nov. 19 only lifted on May 27 as part of stage one of the province’s four-step reopening strategy. Fifty-person indoor worship services are now permitted.

The six-month odyssey to get to this modest re-opening was full of twists and turns. Moore said attaining updates from government and public health officials was challenging, with Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller resorting to filing a petition in B.C. Supreme Court to receive an exemption because the letters sent by the St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers Guild to Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix did not render a response.

Besides B.C.’s gradual re-opening, there are positive developments for Alberta churchgoers as restrictions began to loosen June 1, and that’s good news to the Catholic Women’s League (CWL), Knights of Columbus and other Alberta faithful who took part in a letter-writing campaign to Premier Jason Kenney over the Victoria Day long weekend.

In an e-mail to The Catholic Register, Julie Ann Heggenstaller, a CWL member of St. James Parish in Okotoks, Alta., said she heard about petitions to ease restrictions, and it came to her “that many individual letters following that petition might have a powerful impact.” She secured permission from her pastor to ask others to submit letters too, and word soon spread to other communities.

“I don’t know how many letters were sent or if they made a difference at all,” wrote Heggenstaller. “What I do know is that I am once again peaceful and starting (May 30) able to attend Mass in my 1,500-capacity church. So, I’m very grateful for that.”

Provincial governments across Canada are presenting faith adherents with rays of hope by unveiling roadmaps and timelines on the lifting of public worship restrictions heading into the summer months.

Ultimately, these scenarios will come to fruition if the vaccination rates and the trajectory of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit goals set by provincial health departments.

These guidelines are not enough for some who want to return to their places of worship, sooner and more fully. And they have an ally in the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a legal advocacy group headquartered in Calgary, that has not deviated from one fixed target: an end to all lockdown restrictions.

JCCF lawyer Marty Moore says the centre strives to restore all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has ongoing and pending legal actions in five provinces to end public health restrictions it deems in violation of the Charter.

Freedom of conscience and religion happens to be the first liberty mentioned in section 2 of the Charter, even before freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Moore says this freedom is “not being respected” by Canadian leaders.

“I think across the country the treatment of religious groups throughout this period of the pandemic shows our government’s lack of respect for the basic principles of the Charter,” said Moore. “We are a pluralistic society and many are not people of faith, but our elected representatives are showing a tremendous disregard for people of faith — particularly in B.C. — (that) is really alarming and should be a concern for everyone.”

Moore is hoping to not only re-unite churches with their congregations, he said he seeks a restoration of freedom in Canada.

“Canada needs a restored culture of freedom. There needs to be a respect and a demarcation that government is not the all-powerful institution in our society and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “A free society respects the role of faith communities, and the role and responsibility of faith communities to protect their own membership. I have not met a single faith community that isn’t concerned about the health of its members.”

The legal battles in a few faith communities heated up in Alberta with the arrests of three religious leaders in 2021, including two over the past month.

Pastor Artur Pawlowski of Street Church Ministries and the Fortess (Cave) of Adullam was arrested alongside his brother Dawid during a rally May 8 for organizing and promoting “an illegal in-person gathering.” This came a month after he went viral for labeling Calgary Police Service, Alberta Health Services and city bylaw officers as “Nazis,” “Gestapo” and “communists” while preventing them from disrupting an Easter Sunday service. He was ultimately released from the Calgary Remand Centre on May 10.

On May 16, Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church was arrested for repeatedly holding church services in violation of the ongoing restrictions. JCCF secured Stephens’ release on May 18, one day after AHS ordered the closure of the church. The JCCF achieved a win May 28 as the AHS abandoned its contempt of court application against Stephens. Fresh off the victory, Stephens celebrated a liturgical service two days later despite the closure order still standing.

JCCF also represents Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, Alta., who was jailed Feb. 16 to March 22 for violating health regulations. He is set to return to court June 7.

Moore himself is primarily involved in fighting the ban on public worship services in B.C., with its closure decree enacted on Nov. 19 only lifted on May 27 as part of stage one of the province’s four-step reopening strategy. Fifty-person indoor worship services are now permitted.

The six-month odyssey to get to this modest re-opening was full of twists and turns. Moore said attaining updates from government and public health officials was challenging, with Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller resorting to filing a petition in B.C. Supreme Court to receive an exemption because the letters sent by the St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers Guild to Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix did not render a response.

Besides B.C.’s gradual re-opening, there are positive developments for Alberta churchgoers as restrictions began to loosen June 1, and that’s good news to the Catholic Women’s League (CWL), Knights of Columbus and other Alberta faithful who took part in a letter-writing campaign to Premier Jason Kenney over the Victoria Day long weekend.

In an e-mail to The Catholic Register, Julie Ann Heggenstaller, a CWL member of St. James Parish in Okotoks, Alta., said she heard about petitions to ease restrictions, and it came to her “that many individual letters following that petition might have a powerful impact.” She secured permission from her pastor to ask others to submit letters too, and word soon spread to other communities.

“I don’t know how many letters were sent or if they made a difference at all,” wrote Heggenstaller. “What I do know is that I am once again peaceful and starting (May 30) able to attend Mass in my 1,500-capacity church. So, I’m very grateful for that.”

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