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Abbotsford MLA testifies about in-person worship ban in court

Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong appeared Friday in a Chilliwack courtroom to explain his January 2021 letter to then-B.C. Attorney General David Eby.
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Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong asks why B.C. government has spent “a fortune” on court proceedings related to churches that said their constitutional rights were violated during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wolfgang Depner/Black Press Media file)

Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong appeared Friday in a Chilliwack courtroom to explain his January 2021 letter to then-B.C. Attorney-General David Eby questioning the ban on in-person worship imposed by provincial health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The long-time MLA had been asked to share his rationale for writing the Eby letter by Paul Jaffe, lawyer for Rev. John Koopman of the Free Reformed Church, the first applicant in the abuse-of-process hearing that began June 13 in Chilliwack court on behalf of three Fraser Valley churches.

Church leaders of the Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford, Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley and Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack were charged for violating PHO restrictions in 2020.

They took the matter to court, challenging the legislative basis that made the in-person gatherings illegal, and lost on appeal.

The voir dire portion of the abuse-of-process hearing, to consider witnesses and evidence, had been paused on the morning of June 14 so that de Jong could appear in court to underline the "importance" of the in-person nature of worship.

"I had started to receive calls and letters," de Jong told the court, about the lack of accommodation being offered by the provincial government to those wishing to worship in churches. De Jong stated he originally sent his letter electronically to Eby, now posted on his social media, after noticing a "diminishment in the legitimacy" of the health orders, as a long-time MLA for more than three decades, and as one who held several cabinet posts when the BC Liberals were in government, including the role of Attorney General, and Health Minister.

"These laws need to be viewed as legitimate instruments," de Jong said. The MLA wrote there was a need "to find a reasonable balance" between legitimate public health issues and the constitutional rights protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He suggested there was a "fundamental inconsistency" in the way religious groups were being accommodated versus secular groups at the time. Asked if he knew that in fact some Orthodox synagogues had received accommodation for exceptions to the health order rules around worshipping in 2021, de Jong replied that he had not been aware.

He estimated that he heard from "more than 50 but less 100" people including constituents and from people across the province, including spiritual leaders representing thousands. The MLA was warned by Judge Andrea Ormiston that "hearsay would not be tendered for truth," after Crown counsel Micah Rankin said he was making a "half objection" to de Jong's account of his state of mind at the time of the letter writing.

Asked if he sought any media publicity about the letter, de Jong replied that he provided a copy of his Jan. 21 letter to Eby to anyone who expressed interest in it. The first part of de Jong's letter to Eby: "I am writing to communicate the concerns that have been expressed to me by a number of spiritual organizations representing a broad cross section of religions. These faith-based agencies have asked that I transmit their frustration with the provisions of the Order of the Provincial Health Officer that imposes a total ban on holding 'a worship or other religious service, ceremony or celebration in British Columbia.' 

"It is my hope, and theirs, that you will take these concerns and the submissions that follow into account when providing advice to the Provincial Health Officer in advance of any discussions to extend the present order," the letter continued. "These groups ask that the provisions imposing a total ban on religious services not be renewed. In the alternative, they ask that the provisions of the Order be amended in a manner that will permit certain in-person religious gatherings to occur."

The letter later continues: "The essence of the concerns today is that there is a fundamental inconsistency between how secular and religious gatherings are being treated by the Public Health Order. The frustration I am hearing is further amplified by the fact that, unlike many of the secular activities accommodated by the Order, religious gatherings are specifically protected by the first fundamental freedom enumerated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

The three churches lost lost their first case against the province in 2021. The B.C. Court of Appeal then heard the case and also ruled against the churches in December 2022. When it went to the Supreme Court of Canada, it ruled in August 2023 that it would not hear the churches’ appeal.

An abuse-of-process hearing gives courts the authority to order that a proceeding be stayed once deemed to be unfair or otherwise able to undermine the integrity of the judicial system.

--with files from Vikki Hopes, Abbotsford News