Aylmer, Ont., police are taking the next step in their investigation into a local church for allegedly violating the province’s emergency orders by holding “drive-in” church services amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Aylmer police announced Tuesday they were consulting with the Crown attorney’s office after the Church of God held a third parking lot service on Sunday, despite warnings from police.
Police said approximately 61 carloads of people could be seen filling the church’s parking lot as pastor Henry Hildebrandt preached from a raised platform through the congregants’ car radios. Parishioners were asked to stay inside their vehicles with the windows rolled up.
Two police officers were on hand for the service collecting video and other evidence, which has since been packaged and sent to the Crown for consideration for prosecution, said Aylmer police Chief Zvonko Horvat.
Specifically, police are looking into the violation of a portion of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act that bans gatherings of more than five people for the purposes of conducting religious services, rites or ceremonies.
“We’re looking at a charge under Part III prosecution,” Horvat said.
According to the Law Commission of Ontario, Part III prosecution is for offences that must be brought before a justice for resolution, not through a set fine or a ticket.
After the Crown reviews the evidence and applicable laws, Horvat says Aylmer police will consult with them to determine how to proceed, including whether charges should be laid.
“It’s a contentious issue for the community, and we want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in consultation with the Crown, who ultimately will have that responsibility of prosecution.”
A previous service held April 19 resulted in 15 complaints from citizens, police said, adding that talks with church leadership on several occasions to resolve the issue proved unfruitful.
It’s unclear whether the church plans to continue holding the drive-in services, but Horvat said if it does, police will be there, gathering evidence until they hear contrary from the Crown.
“And if we do go down that road, then certainly any additional breaches would be added to that original contravention,” he said.
Police have said it would be either the church itself or those organizing the services, such as Hildebrandt, who would be charged, not churchgoers.
“I believe the actual fine up to $100,000,” Horvat said of the potential penalties.
Hildebrandt has previously told Global News that the church would “absolutely not” pay any fines, adding, “we definitely plan to take it to court — whatever it takes.”
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Hildebrandt said the church remained “relentless in our resolve,” saying no laws were broken and that safety guidelines were followed.
According to Hildebrandt, police found no issues when they attended the church’s first two drive-in services, held on Easter Sunday and on April 19, and claims that had the church sought permission to hold them and been rejected, it would have continued with livestreamed services.
The pastor charges that the 15 complaints to police came after a passerby took a photo of the April 19 service and shared it on Facebook with “false information.” According to the London Free Press, it appeared many Facebook users thought congregants were inside the church.
He also accused the police of “intrusively” videotaping congregants coming and going while on private property without a warrant.
“It appears that the Chief remains resolved to prosecute in the face of overwhelming legal opinion against his interpretation of the Emergency Act,” Hildebrandt said. “We pray that he would seize this opportunity to resolve this situation quickly.”
In an email Wednesday morning, Chief Horvat declined to comment on Hildebrandt’s statement, saying he wasn’t going to “get into a debate between his media release and the one we sent out regarding our investigation.”
“He is entitled to his interpretation of a warning and Facebook post,” Horvat said.
Prior to Sunday’s service, the church retained the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms to write a letter to police after authorities warned of potential charges.
Speaking with 980 CFPL on Monday, a London-based lawyer with the centre questioned whether the services could be considered a gathering under the emergency orders, given that attendants stayed in their vehicles with the windows up.
“People can sit in parking lots at Walmart, they can go through the drive-thru at Tim Hortons in their vehicles, but when you put that parking lot in front of a church then somehow it’s a problem,” said Lisa Bildy.
In an interview with 980 CFPL on Saturday, Hildebrant made a similar comparison with liquor store parking lots.
Bildy added that the church felt inclined to hold the third service regardless of a change in tone from police, which she believes was brought about by community complaints.
— With files from Jacquelyn LeBel and Kelly Wang of 980 CFPL, and The Canadian Press.