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JCCF: Ford Government escalates enforcement against faith groups

WATERLOO: The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is defending Trinity Bible Chapel, located near Waterloo, Ontario, against escalating enforcement measures by the Ford government, including contempt of court proceedings held on January 27, 2021, with further hearings to be continued in February.

The Pastor at the Church, Jacob Reaume (pictured above, at right) has been a vocal advocate of the importance of gathering for worship in the life of the church and its community. Having witnessed the negative impacts from the harsh government restrictions on churches for many months in the spring, he announced on his website on December 3, 2020 that if his region went into a hard lockdown again, his church would remain open, and that it was essential to do so —spiritually, psychologically, biblically and legally.

For more than ten months, with no apparent end in sight, the government has infringed the rights and freedoms of Ontarians to assemble, associate, worship and travel, as well as violating citizens’ personal autonomy over their own health, and the right of long-term care residents not to be confined and treated like prisoners. All of these rights and freedoms are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While those rights may be limited in exceptional circumstances, the government’s violations of rights and freedoms must be proportional to the goal that the government seeks to achieve. The violations must be reasonable, rational, and not overly broad or arbitrary. The burden is on the government, not on citizens, to prove that the benefits outweigh the harms.

Since lockdowns were imposed in March of 2020, the Ford government has failed to provide evidence that lockdown benefits (if any) outweigh the harms, despite repeated requests from the Justice Centre and even in response to a recent challenge from within Premier Ford’s own party. Premier Ford has shut down the opposing voices of MPP Roman Baber and MPP Belinda Karahalios, and has maintained a de facto state of emergency through its Reopening Ontario Act. The Reopening Ontario Act is a backdoor means of continuing to hold emergency powers, which are concentrated in a small group of cabinet members and public health officials, rather than in the Legislature as required by Canada’s Constitution.

Government data and statistics continue to show that advanced age is the leading risk factor for death from COVID-19, particularly where there are several serious co-morbidities. More people over the age of 90 have died in Ontario than all those under the age of 80 combined. For the vast majority of the population, COVID-19 is not a deadly threat. This is especially so for children, who are statistically at greater risk of dying from the annual flu than from COVID-19.

“Despite knowing who is most at risk, measures to protect those in long-term care were extremely inadequate,” states Justice Centre lawyer Lisa Bildy. “Instead, the focus has been on locking down the rest of society, resulting in economic destruction, death and despair from this unprecedented experiment on the populace.”

There has been mounting evidence of these lockdown harms, and increasing numbers of health professionals are raising concerns, despite risks to their careers. Ontario’s former Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Richard Schabas, who served as chief of staff at York Central hospital during the 2003 SARS crisis, has also recently spoken out against lockdowns saying, “Lockdown was never part of our planned pandemic response nor is it supported by strong science. Two recent studies on the effectiveness of lockdown show that it has, at most, a small COVID mortality benefit compared to more moderate measures. Both studies warned about the excessive cost of lockdowns.”

The mainstream media has been largely silent on this issue, preferring to focus on raising fears about “cases”, which include many healthy and younger people who never develop symptoms, and which are based on the use of PCR tests which are known to produce significant numbers of “false positives”, depending on how and where they are used.

“The media has, however, been quite interested in focusing negative attention on a country church that has drawn a line in the sand over these draconian restrictions,” states Ms. Bildy. “Various media are more than willing to feature speculative commentary on the motives of this church and its leadership, vilification of the pastor, and suggestions that they are causing harm to the community, all without evidence to support that speculation. This has even resulted in threats of violence against Trinity Bible Chapel,” continues Ms. Bildy.

Having sent his December 3, 2020 open letter of defiance to the Waterloo police chief, Pastor Reaume received a visit from two police officers on December 24 to advise him that the entire province would be locking down for a four-week period, beginning on Boxing Day, and that he was expected to close.

Pastor Reaume took the opportunity to share his views on lockdown harms, not only to people in his community, but the broader fabric of society. He welcomed the police officers to join his church in worship over the Christmas season and beyond.

True to their word, the Church held a service on December 27, which police attended in the parking lot to monitor. A few days later, all six of Trinity Bible Chapel’s elders and pastors were simultaneously served at their homes with summonses to appear in provincial offences court in January. After a second service on January 3, 2021, they were charged again. Each charge carries the risk of a $100,000 fine and a year in jail. For the church, the risk is $10 million per charge.

To raise the pressure on the Church, the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office (“the Crown”) then served notice that it would bring an application under the Reopening Ontario Act for an order mandating that Trinity and its leadership abide by the regulations, which limit gatherings for religious services to just ten people. Breaching such an order could result in contempt proceedings, which could lead to imprisonment. To avoid that outcome, the Crown asked that Trinity undertake not to meet. The Church reluctantly agreed, but only for the balance of Premier Doug Ford’s four-week hard lockdown. Trinity Bible Chapel then held legal drive-in services on two Sundays without incident. They planned, however, to reopen for services on January 24 at 30% capacity, immediately following the end of that lockdown.

But, as has been the pattern, the government’s goalposts moved before they were even reached. On January 12, 2021, the Ford Government issued a second “state of emergency”, forcing Ontarians to abide by a “stay-at-home” order prohibiting all activity unless expressly permitted. This unprecedented edict turned the usual hallmark of a free society—that you can freely do whatever is not prohibited—into one where you cannot do anything unless it is expressly allowed by the Government.

The Crown demanded a further undertaking from the Church to continue to avoid meeting in person. After much deliberation, the elders of Trinity declined to sign.

Late on the afternoon of Thursday, January 21, lawyers from the Crown served a nearly 300-page court application on Justice Centre lawyers, seeking an immediate order requiring Trinity Bible Chapel to follow the Reopening Ontario Act. An emergency meeting with a judge was arranged for the afternoon of Friday, January 22, attended by four lawyers from the Crown. Since the legislation permits the Crown to easily obtain such an order without notice, or any consideration of the validity of the regulations, the judge ordered the Church to comply.

The Order permits the Church to bring a motion to set the decision aside within 30 days. The Justice Centre has announced that it will challenge the constitutionality of the gatherings restrictions by filing a Notice of Constitutional Question and motion within these court proceedings.

“All of this pressure is being brought to bear by the state on a single church, to prevent it from breaking the law and worshipping in person as the church has done for 2000 years,” stated Ms. Bildy. “However, the Ford government has not yet had to prove in a court of law that its extraordinary, indefinite restrictions on the Charter-guaranteed rights of Ontarians are themselves legal, demonstrably justified and in accordance with the Constitution – the supreme law that governs those who govern us. They may finally be forced to do so in this court application.”

The saga continues. The Church held services in defiance of the Order on Sunday, January 24. On Tuesday, January 26, lawyers for the Government served notice of contempt proceedings on Trinity Bible Chapel and its elders, to be held the following day. The Church did not oppose the finding of contempt, but will be making extensive submissions as to penalty when the matter returns to court in mid-February. The elders, with conflicted consciences, agreed to not hold in-person services at Trinity Bible Chapel until February 9, the end of the current state-of-emergency. This was a decision made against their sincerely-held religious beliefs, but was necessary to avoid the possibility of their church doors being locked for all purposes, including operation of a private Christian school which is located onsite—relief the Crown was seeking in its motion for contempt.

The Church will continue fighting for religious freedom and the fundamental Charter right to assemble for worship as the matter proceeds through the courts.

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