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A Plan to Keep Places of Worship Open During Emergencies


April 12, 2022

OTTAWA, ON – It’s time to update Ontario’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act to create a distinct category for the treatment of religious services, rites, and ceremonies, according to a new policy brief by think tank Cardus. The brief flows from consultations with Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Bahá’í, and Christian leaders, which examined the restrictions and closures Ontario’s faith communities faced throughout COVID-19. Houses of worship were often under stricter restrictions than retail businesses, even though freedom of conscience and religion are constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms. For example, in Step One of Ontario’s Roadmap to Reopen in May 2021, essential retail businesses and liquor stores could operate at 25 percent capacity, while indoor religious services were limited to 10 people regardless of the size of the house of worship.   In the policy brief, Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Director of Cardus Religious Freedom, and Andreae Sennyah, Cardus Policy Director, argue that houses of worship faced “unequal and occasionally arbitrary treatment” that “failed to recognize the distinct role of faith communities and the essential nature of public worship.”

“For many religious traditions, public or communal worship is fundamental not optional,” says Rev. Dr. Bennett. “Governments, of course, may restrict gatherings and limit freedoms during emergencies, like a pandemic. But limits on houses of worship need to be proportionate to limits on other gathering places.”

The Cardus policy brief calls for two updates to the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, Ontario’s emergency legislation:

1. Guarantee Proper Constitutional Treatment of Religious Services

Cardus recommends that section 7.0.2 of the Act be amended to create a separate category for how emergency orders apply to religious services, rites, and ceremonies (including weddings and funerals). Under this new category, limits on religious activity should be the same as, or less restrictive than, the next least-restricted institution under an emergency order. For example, if essential retail businesses are given the greatest latitude (i.e., 25 percent capacity), places of worship should receive the same or less restrictive treatment (i.e., 25 percent capacity or higher).

2. Protect Against Arbitrariness and Jurisdictional Confusion

Cardus further recommends that section 7.0.2 of the Act be amended to ensure that any limits placed on public worship are proportionate and reasonable. The amendments should require that emergency orders applicable to religious services, rites, and ceremonies include a rationale when they are filed and published. The rationale must stipulate clearly how the emergency order achieves the policy objective.

“In future emergencies, no government should be able to maintain arbitrarily stricter gathering limits on gurdwaras, mosques, synagogues, churches, or other houses of worship than on liquor or hardware stores,” says Sennyah.

The Cardus policy brief is freely available online.

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