A Vernon, B.C. city councillor would like to see his city lobby the province to have places of worship labeled essential and remain open, with safety precautions, during the pandemic.
However, the province’s top doctor is defending B.C.’s restrictions on worship services, and some Okanagan religious groups have told Global News they agree with Dr. Bonnie Henry, saying gathering for worship right now is the wrong approach.
Vernon city councillor Scott Anderson said he is advocating for places of worship to be labeled an essential service after being contacted by a church.
Anderson is hoping Vernon’s city council will endorse a motion calling for the city to write a letter to the provincial government “in support of having places of worship and churches open…with provincial safety protocol in place to ensure the safety of their worshipers.”
Anderson is arguing that religious spaces are just as essential as airplanes, bars, and big box stores that continue to operate.
“I think it has to be fair across the board. There are a great number of people who consider church a very essential service and that may be their only lifeline to the outside,” Anderson said.
Under current COVID-19 restrictions, no in-person worship services are allowed in B.C.
However, the province said people can still go to religious spaces for individual activities like personal prayer.
The rules have lead many religious groups to hold online services instead, including First Baptist Church Vernon.
While the senior pastor admits his congregation would rather be holding in-person services this Christmas, Randy Hamm said they realize they need to sacrifice for the good of the community.
“I think our government has to make some decisions and there [are] times when compliance is needed,” Hamm said.
“It’s the most loving thing to do to not meet during a pandemic. The church is essential, but the church can continue to be the church even if we are not meeting for service.”
Steve Shoranick, president of the BC Muslim Association’s Kelowna chapter, shared a similar view.
“In all religions, worship is very essential however the place is not essential. God hears you wherever you are. God doesn’t need a temple, doesn’t need a mosque, doesn’t need a church,” Shoranick said.
Shoranick is urging people to follow COVID-19 health advice.
“My understanding of all religions is that we are supposed to protect others, we are supposed to make sure everybody is safe. By getting together we are harming each other,” Shoranick said.
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Dr. Bonnie Henry is standing behind the current rules about worship services.
The provincial health officer said this week she agrees spiritual services are essential, but the gatherings have also proven to be risky.
“Even with those safety measures in place [COVID-19] was being transmitted in some of those settings and that is why those settings are being included in those that we know are high risk right now. This has nothing to do with taking away people’s rights to religious freedom,” Henry said.
Henry said there are other ways people can continue to practice their faith without gathering.
B.C.’s widespread provincial gathering restrictions are expected to stay in place until at least January 8.
Vernon city council is expected to discuss councillor Anderson’s motion at its next meeting on January 11.