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Church shutdown constitutional if there are reasonable grounds, say experts

Last Updated Apr 8, 2021 at 6:22 pm MDT

EDMONTON – It’s something many people have said about pandemic shutdowns across the province and it’s a phrase that has been thrown around again following the closure of a big church near Edmonton: it’s unconstitutional.

But a lawyer and an expert on the Canadian constitution say that’s not necessarily the case.

On Wednesday, as the RCMP set up fences around GraceLife church enacting a closure notice from AHS, people unhappy with the closure gathered around the property.

READ MORE: AHS closes GraceLife church near Edmonton

Many shouted comments along the lines of the closure being against their right to freedom of religion. Similar sentiments has also come up during several anti-lockdown rallies in Calgary and Edmonton.

“A lot of groups who defy public health orders try and weaponize the charter and say what the government is doing is illegal,” said Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law/Cumming School of Medicine.

“So, you read Section 2 that says I have a fundamental right of religion, that’s absolutely right you do. But you’ve got to read [Section] 1 that says the state can limit those freedoms if there is justification for doing so,” said Eric Adams, a University of Alberta law professor and a constitutional expert.

Adams says the state restricting religious gatherings is not something we’ve seen in Canadian history.

And that means there will be a lot of eyes on the legal case surrounding GraceLife.

The church’s lawyers are planning to mount a constitutional argument, saying in a statement “government has so far refused to justify the limits on worship and gathering.”

But Adams believes the government’s court argument will be much of what Albertans have already heard.

RELATED: Why did it take several months for GraceLife church to be closed down?

“[It’s] going to submit the evidence of the transmission rates of this disease, how this disease moves between people. And a court is going to look at that evidence, and in all likelihood, say what every court has already said that’s looked at this issue: these are reasonable limits,” said Adams.

Public health officials have been trying to work with GraceLife since December when restrictions on places of worship were set at 15 per cent.

Pastor James Coates was arrested and held in jail for a month for refusing bail conditions that he does not hold massive gatherings against public health orders.

“Soon we’ll have a larger judicial body of judicial opinion on the constitutionality of public health restrictions, which will be useful because we see a lot of misinformation out there in terms of what is constitutional and what’s not,” said Hardcastle.

The church has become a focal point for many anti-restrictions demonstrators, some driving from out of town to attend service.

GraceLife is just one of a number of charter challenges surrounding pandemic restrictions across Canada But Adams is skeptical the challenge will get very far.

“In my view, they are going to fail to say this is not reasonable limits. How could it not be, when over 2,000 Albertans have died in the middle of a pandemic?”