As of April 3, Ontario is under a month-long shutdown that restricts public gatherings, outdoor dining, and personal care services — the latter closed again shortly after reopening. Scores of churches across the country, however, held in-person service on Good Friday and Easter Sunday in defiance of the provincial guidelines, as part of “We Will Gather” initiative led by anti-lockdown group Liberty Coalition Canada.
The coalition encouraged churches to reopen for Easter weekend and defy public health directives that, in its view, “violate personal conscience, the nature of worship, [and] the ability for people to participate.”
“It was a great time of celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that is what we want to be freely able to do,” coalition campaign manager Michael Thiessen told iPolitics.
With nearly 80 participating churches, the coalition invited others to join a list that would be used to dispute future lockdowns, according to the group. The Liberty Coalition is endorsed by MPP Randy Hillier, People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, and former Conservative MP Derek Sloan, all part of the “end the lockdown caucus,” according to Global News.
“I think the church does need to be open for those who need it,” Sloan told iPolitics. He believes that places of worship also serve as community hubs that offer support through outreach, additional programs, and counselling. While religious services are not entirely forbidden in Toronto, places of worship are limited to 15% room capacity, and physical distancing must be maintained while indoors, according to the City.
Some establishments have resorted to virtual and outdoor services instead of indoor gatherings. Trillium Lutheran and Elevation Churches of Waterloo, for instance, took its Easter festivities to the streets and held “Station of the Cross” walks with its congregation, CTV News reported.
In British Columbia, the province revoked a temporary exemption for indoor religious gatherings, according to Global. Much to public health officials’ chagrin, nearly a dozen churches in the province flouted restrictions to hold Easter gatherings.
“Most churches are doing the right thing, they’re holding services outside,” said Mike Farnworth, Public Safety Minister. BC had recently approved outdoor religious gatherings, Global reported.
“I think it’s irresponsible frankly, at this particular point in time when we’re seeing an increase in cases to be going against the health officer’s orders when there’s no need to.”
The coalition stated that since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been widespread confusion about group gatherings for worship as some continue with in-person services while others have “re-imagined themselves” through virtual congregations.
“As the government begins to use our confused behaviour against us, the time for clarity is now,” the group stated. The Liberty Coalition also runs another related cause, The Church Must Gather, a petition demanding the reopening of places of worship.
On Easter Sunday, April 4, local authorities went to a Calgary church to check that it was fulfilling COVID-19 regulations. The viral video posted by pastor Artur Pawlowski shows him ushering the officers out for interrupting the service and “intimidating” parishioners during Passover.
“Do not come back without a warrant,” an irate Pawlowski said in the footage. “You are not welcome here. Nazis are not welcome.”
According to CTV, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) was present to keep the peace at the church, and only one police officer was dispatched to the scene.
In a news release, the CPS stated that they did not levy tickets at the time but “it will be up to our partner agencies to determine subsequent enforcement activity in response to this situation.”
On his Facebook profile, Pawlowski has thanked the surge of internet support for his stand against the authorities and the video’s wide circulation.
“Thousands of messages of support are pouring in!” he wrote. “I hope that this will encourage others to stand up and fight for their rights!”
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