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Justice Centre to defend Ontario churches targeted by police for church services

ONTARIO: The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms today announced that it will defend numerous Ontario pastors and church elders charged for holding church services in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act. The Justice Centre will contest the charges on the basis that the Act violates the Charter rights of Ontario citizens to peacefully assemble for worship, among other grounds for challenge.

Several members of the Old Colony Mennonite Church and Word of Life Mennonite community, with locations in Leamington and Wheatley, Ontario, have been charged by police over the last week. In at least one case, after giving a short warning to wrap up, police entered the church building and demanded that the service end immediately. Many Mennonite communities are not active online and do not use much technology. As such, in-person church services are fundamental to their community and way of life.

In Woodstock, Pastor René McIntyre of the Trumpet of Truth Church was served with a summons after a service on December 27, which was interrupted by police who videotaped parishioners at worship through the door. Pastor McIntyre’s ministry is heavily focused on supporting individuals struggling with homelessness and addiction in her community.

In Windsor, Pastor Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church was advised by police that charges would be forthcoming, following a service on December 20 while Windsor was in the ‘grey zone’ and limited to gatherings of only ten people indoors. In an open letter published on December 15, Pastor Rock had invited the Mayor of Windsor and the Chief of Police to attend upcoming services in which the persecution and even murder of Christians globally would be remembered. He noted that both officials had previously attended Black Lives Matter protests in June, when organized gatherings were limited to five people even outdoors.

On December 3, 2020, Pastor Jacob Reaume of Trinity Bible Church (TBC) near Waterloo, posted an open letter on his website, in which he advised that the church would remain open during any future lockdowns, as shutting down was an infringement of his parishioners’ fundamental freedom to practice their religious beliefs together in person. After setting out the biblical and legal basis for his position, Pastor Reaume concluded: “While our desire is to work with the Province to care for the health of our community, TBC respectfully advises that it must practice civil disobedience in the event of a government lockdown.”

After the province-wide lockdown began on December 26, police attended at the church the following day during a Sunday service. On December 30, all six of the church’s elders and pastors were simultaneously served at their homes with summonses to appear in provincial offences court in January.

In a press release dated December 31, Pastor Reaume wrote:

“While we seek to honour and pray for our governing officials, we are also grieved over the apparent hypocrisy and arbitrary applications of law. Several politicians have been caught violating their own laws by visiting cottages, hosting gatherings, or jaunting to warmer climates. Our very own Chief of Police, Brian Larkin, publicly endorsed much larger public gatherings in June. While Ontarians were restricted to outdoor gatherings of 5 or less persons, the Chief of Police offered the ‘full support’ to a protest in which the ‘crowd may have been between 12,000 and 20,000 strong.’ Chief Larkin explained to participants, even as they contravened lockdown orders, that police “will ensure you have the support needed to practice your democratic right and have your voice heard.” The arbitrary rule of law is dangerous even as it is contrary to our inherited values.”

Meanwhile, in Aylmer, Ontario, the Church of God’s legal drive-in service on January 3 was again harassed by protestors calling themselves “Canadians Against ‘Freedom’ Rallies and Misinformation.” The Justice Centre also represents the Church of God’s pastor Henry Hildebrandt and his son Herbert Hildebrandt in defending charges that were laid against them for attending peaceful protests against lockdown measures in November.

"Churches are being targeted by both police and vigilante members of the public, who look for church parking lots with vehicles and call in complaints to the police,” states Justice Centre staff lawyer, Lisa Bildy. “It’s easy to see how the Stasi in East Germany were able to operate so effectively – it appears it doesn’t take much to turn neighbours into informants, and police into petty tyrants.”

“With charges attracting fines of between $10,000 to $100,000, along with the threat of jail time, this is a clear escalation of enforcement, targeted at otherwise law-abiding citizens who believe strongly that attending church is essential to their well-being,” notes Ms. Bildy.

The Justice Centre has produced numerous reports on the harms of lockdowns to Canadians, including the ongoing infringement of civil liberties. “Many people scoff at those who believe that defending civil liberties is especially critical during government-declared emergencies, as though they are somehow selfish and short-sighted,” says Ms. Bildy. “In fact, it is only through the vigilance and courage of people like these church leaders that we have any hope of remaining a free society. History is replete with examples of authoritarianism being ushered in by a fearful public, and fanning the flames of that fear is a common tactic of such regimes.”

Restrictions on gatherings were first imposed using the Province’s powers under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, activated in March of 2020 with a declaration of emergency. In July, when the state of emergency ended, the Province transferred its emergency powers into new legislation, called the Reopening Ontario Act. The orders restricting gatherings to only 10 people are made under this Act, which gives the Ford cabinet power to continually amend these orders as it sees fit for up to a one-year period, without any debate by the elected legislature.

The Reopening Ontario Act, like all laws in this country, must comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees citizens that the government will not infringe their freedoms of peaceful assembly and religion, among other fundamental freedoms. The onus is on government, not citizens, to show that the violation of Charter freedoms is “demonstrably justified.” Where there is a pressing and substantial concern, such as a declared public health emergency, reasonable restrictions may be imposed, but governments are required to violate Charter rights and freedoms as little as possible, only to the extent necessary to protect public health.

“Despite being at this for nearly 10 months, the government has failed to adequately protect long-term care homes, where scores of elderly residents are dying, and instead has imposed draconian, abusive restrictions on the rest of the population, 90% of whom will suffer no impact from Covid-19 itself, but who are increasingly suffering severe harms from lockdown measures,” states Sayeh Hassan, staff lawyer with the Justice Centre.

“For many religious communities, coming together to worship is a fundamental aspect of their faith. As time goes on, the impacts to their communities and membership become too great to ignore, and many religious leaders are bound by their consciences and conviction to ensure that worship can continue as safely as possible for their parishioners. This government has asked too great a price of its citizens, to give up their fundamental freedoms indefinitely, while it continues to mismanage the healthcare and long-term care systems, both of which are supposed to serve the interests of the citizens of this province, not hold them hostage,” states Ms. Hassan.

The Justice Centre will attend at multiple first appearances over the next several months, on behalf of these churches and their leaders.

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