Multiple churches in the North Okanagan have added their signatures to a Canada-wide call for the return of religious gatherings.
Indoor religious congregation has been suspended in the province amid the pandemic. Outdoor religious gatherings are permitted with a 50 person limit plus two extra people to ensure rules are followed, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.
In Vernon, the debate around religious gatherings flared up ahead of Christmas 2020, when city councillor Scott Anderson pushed to send a letter to the province calling for places of worship to be deemed essential.
Two Vernon churches — the Slavic Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Mission Accomplished Ministries — have signed a countrywide petition by Liberty Coalition Canada — an offshoot of a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.
Lumby’s Christian Ministers Association is also among the 183 church signees from across the country.
Andrea Sanzana, co-founder and faith leader at Mission Accomplished Ministries, says there’s no COVID-19 denial among signees like herself.
“I’m not saying if people are sick that we shouldn’t wear a mask around them,” she said.
Rather, she characterizes the restrictions as arbitrary when considered next to other services that have been allowed to stay open.
“We can go into the stores and we can go in everywhere else, but we can’t have church. I’m at the gym right now,” she said by phone. “(The rules) seem to change every day and I think people are getting really frustrated.”
However, the irony is not lost on Sanzana when she says shutting down churches may have worked out for the better because it’s forced faith leaders to reach out beyond the confines of their physical places of worship.
“The churches have been sitting in their buildings for years,” she said. “It’s really good actually that the churches got shut down because now we can take it to the streets, now we can go and help the people and do what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Sanzana’s in-person religious services have taken a hiatus, “because people are scared,” and their more far-reaching program — Coast to Coast for the Holy Ghost — has also taken a back seat to COVID-19.
But like countless other churches, they’ve been offering virtual services twice per week. Going virtual has improved their reach significantly; it’s allowed them to loop in a friend and follower from Newfoundland, for instance.
The petition runs counter to a B.C. Supreme Court decision in March that upheld provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s order, finding it did not unreasonably infringe on religious rights.
That decision is being appealed by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents a group that includes the three Fraser Valley churches which were fined in December 2020 for contravening the public health order.
— With Canadian Press files