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B.C. church defying public health orders to hold in-person gatherings

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Oaklands Bible Chapel at 2736 Fernwood Rd. (via File photo)

A B.C. church has been holding in-person Sunday services with up to 50 people attending, despite provincial orders that prohibit all religious gatherings until January.

Victoria's Oaklands Bible Chapel has held in-person services three times since provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued an order suspending all events and gatherings until Jan. 8.

In a Dec. 6 sermon recorded inside the church and posted to YouTube, the church’s pastor, Dan Anderson, said they would be holding in-person services on Dec. 6, 13 and 20.

Neighbour AJ Hildebrand has watched people stream into the church for the past three Sundays, and he’s noticed the church is advertising their in-person services online.

He said he was disappointed and “in shock” after discovering the church was hosting up to 50 people inside.

“An institution that is supposed to be about brotherly love and building the community is in fact jeopardizing it and stressing it,” he said.

On the second Sunday, he watched at least 25 people go into the building, many of whom were not wearing masks, he said. “Events like this can be super dangerous.”

By the third week, he decided to ask the church why they were violating the public health order. In a video he shared with the Times Colonist, he spoke to the pastor on Sunday, who told him there were 50 people inside the church.

Anderson, who was not wearing a mask inside the church, deferred questions about the service to a sermon posted to YouTube.

During that Dec. 6 sermon, recorded inside the church and posted to YouTube, Anderson said the church followed the order for the first two Sundays after it went into effect on Nov. 19. But by the third Sunday, they decided to violate the order, he said.

He goes on to question the province’s response to the pandemic, saying guidelines are arbitrarily enforced and doctors in other countries have differing opinions on COVID-19 than B.C. public health officials. He claims without evidence that B.C.’s pandemic regulations are based on initial death toll predictions rather than current data on case counts.

“It didn’t pan out the way they said it was going to pan out,” he said, making the argument that the virus has not caused as much harm as predicted.

The pastor called the province’s reaction “a little bit disproportionate,” and invoked the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, saying Canadians are being denied their rights, and it’s the church’s responsibility to speak up when others are being targeted by government.

In his sermon, the pastor denied the existence of transgender people, called abortion “murder,” and said marriage should only happen between a man and a woman.

Oaklands Bible Chapel did not respond to a call and email requesting an interview.

Hildebrand said he reported the church to Victoria police after the first service, but he’s disappointed in their response. He spoke to an officer who said she talked to someone at the church, and they wouldn’t be holding another in-person service, Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand noticed the church stopped advertising its Sunday service after that, but then a notice went up again, and he informed VicPD.

“I respect the need for diplomacy here, but I think when people, and particularly an organization, are openly defying just and conscionable health orders, I really think people who are entrusted to protect our community should take a bigger position,” he said.

VicPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Hildebrand said he is worried a lack of enforcement against the church will embolden others to put people at risk.

“I fear that other people are just going to say ‘forget it.’ It’s going to be a cascade effect,” he said.

Several churches on the Lower Mainland have been fined for continuing to gather despite the public health order banning gatherings. In a news release, Chilliwack RCMP said officers worked with regional health officers to try to gain voluntary compliance after congregants gathered on Dec. 6 and 13 at three separate churches.

On Thursday, police charged the churches with eight counts of failing to comply with the order and issued fines totalling $18,400.

The public health order does not prohibit people from visiting their place of worship for individual contemplation or prayer, and religious services can be held online.