Unlicensed ministry declared unlawful in B.C.

Last fall, B.C. government officials tried to close down Arnold Community Church’s after-school program on the grounds it constitutes a daycare, a regulated business. For more than a decade, the church has run a once-a-week program for kindergarten to Grade 6 children.

Every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30, more than 100 children flock to the Abbotsford church for a mix of activities including singing, memory verses, and Bible-themed crafts, patterned on the AWANA model. The church had given some thought to expanding their program, but now those plans have been halted.

One club day, officials of the Fraser Health Authority appeared at the church unannounced and asked to see Arnold’s recently renovated building. The visit brought a surprise edict: Arnold was running an unlicensed child care program and must shut it down. B.C. churches, most of which operate under “Food Safe” health regulations for meal service, are aware of provincial guidelines for health and safety, but this was something new.

“It’s not a daycare, it’s ministry,” maintains pastor Rob Dyck. “It’s never been anything else.”

Officials at Fraser Health thought otherwise. The church was given three options: shut down the program, change it substantially, or apply for a child care license. Dyck says the licensing procedure is for regular daily programs, not a once-a-week club, but he could not persuade Fraser Health otherwise.

Dyck turned to the B.C. conference for help. Administrator Marilyn Hiebert contacted the health authority and appealed to a higher level of government to gain a reprieve for Arnold’s program.
The church was allowed to continue its program only as they operate now – no expansion beyond one day a week. However, the church’s case is an exception, they were told.

Coming at the start of the fall season, the time and emotional drain of the legal wrangle on church and program leaders was palpable. Dyck believes the Arnold congregation could not have fought successfully for its program if it had not been connected to a denomination. “Thanks to the leadership and resources we have in the conference family, we could fight this thing,” he says.

Hiebert is concerned. “This incident showed the government has the ability to shut down a ministry with the stroke of a pen on a licensing officer’s determination,” she says. “There is nothing in the regulations to address a faith-based program.”

The incident, says Dyck, is a troubling heads-up to churches.

—Barrie McMaster

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