A group of Yukon church leaders are petitioning the government to exclude worship services from the territory’s vaccine mandate.
The letter, signed by 17 representatives of 10 churches and other faith organizations, was circulated to the premier, the chief medical officer of health, other government figures and the Yukon’s media on Nov. 15. The letter was sent by Jeremy Norton, the pastor of Mountainview Church. It was written by Norton and four other clergy members.
The letter says the vaccine requirement for in-person worship services pose a challenge for Yukon faith leaders.
“The public was provided with a report of ‘80 new cases,’ but not supplied with information on how many cases were children or vaccinated adults, then followed with strict mandates that infringe on one’s freedom to worship. How can we communicate with our congregations and chart a course of action, when we don’t have all of the facts?” the letter states.
The letter points out that worship services are exempt from the mandate in British Columbia and Alberta.
“This proof of vaccination mandate is forcing us to choose between our calling of faith and our territorial government. We are desperate to avoid this choice if at all possible,” the letter reads.
Norton is unwilling to exclude people from services. The church is planning to halt all in-person services and continue offering the online version that he and a volunteer film crew have produced from a small studio behind the church’s pulpit since before the pandemic began.
He said they are holding their breath to see if the government will make changes either in response to the letter from the clergy or when the current state of emergency ends.
He stressed that worshippers gathering in homes are being encouraged to follow guidelines regarding the number of people and number of households getting together. He added that Mountainview had followed all other government measures recommended to protect people from COVID-19 in the past and would do whatever was required except for turn away the unvaccinated if it allowed them to return to services in the church.
Norton said Mountainview was well stocked with masks and cleaning supplies and would consider offering as many as three services each Sunday morning in order to keep the number of people in the building as low as possible.
“When the doors open we just can’t say to anyone, ‘You’re not welcome,’” the pastor said.
Some churches in the Yukon may not be so quick to give up in-person services. Norton, who was chosen to speak on behalf of the clergy who signed the letter, said a variety of responses is likely.
Norton said only one clergy he contacted planned to check vaccination status at the door of the church, while others will also offer some sort of remote service. He said he expects others will defy the mandate entirely.
The petition was widely circulated and Norton said it carries more support than the 17 signatures suggests. He said some Yukon clergy were advised not to sign by lawyers or higher authorities within their churches, while still having concerns about the need to check vaccination status.
Norton said engagement with clergy by the government over the mandate has been lackluster and stands in contrast to earlier health orders that affected churches. He said earlier health orders affecting worship had been preceded by zoom calls with Dr. Brendan Hanley when he was the Yukon’s chief medical officer. He said the calls have stopped and requests for them have been ignored.
“They saw clergy as a vital group of leaders to get the Yukon through,” he said of the former CMOH and his staff.
According to Norton, that leadership is especially important this time of year with the darkest days on the way. He noted that his church provides youth programs that are also being affected by the vaccination requirement and churches also provide counseling and assistance with drug and alcohol addiction.
Norton said three days after the letter was sent he had received reply from the Yukon Party and independent federal election candidate Jonas Smith, but not the government.
The Yukon government did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org