Police in Aylmer, Ont., say they won’t fine a local church for defying Ontario’s emergency orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite determining they have “reasonable and probable grounds” to do so.
In a news release, Aylmer police said they have “decided to use the incident on the 26th of April as an educational tool for the ‘Church of God’ organizers and parishioners, so they have a clear understanding that the gathering is in violation of the emergency order.”
If they had been fined, police say organizers and parishioners at the Church of God in Aylmer could have faced potential penalties upwards of $100,000.
Under the province’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, all gatherings of more than five people to conduct religious services, rites or ceremonies are banned to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“I am very thrilled, very relieved, very glad, many have prayed, called, emailed, commented, and messaged us this week, so we are very grateful for the support and passion they have shown for the freedom of this country,” Pastor Henry Hildebrandt told Global News.
When asked about safety concerns about the large gathering, Pastor Hildebrandt said it’s not an issue.
“If people are staying in their cars with there windows up, we are by far the safest parking lot in town.”
On April 26, police responded to a large church gathering at the Church of God on John Street North.
While there, police say officers observed at least 61 vehicles with several occupants in the parking lot, all listening to the church service being given by Pastor Hildebrandt.
Police say this was the third weekend that they had responded to the location for reports of people disobeying the emergency order.
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. The church confirms that the first drive-in service was held on Easter Sunday.
“I hope that the pastor does take a look at this as a community issue and something that we need to resolve, and hopefully, we can resolve it and return to some normalcy,” police Chief Zvonko Horvat said in an interview with Global News.
He said Aylmer police would continue to respond to any complaints they receive about suspected violations of the emergency order.
Despite previous comments made that they would be going forward with this Sunday’s service, Hildebrandt now says he wants to hear from Ontario’s Premier and his cabinet before going ahead.
— With files from Global News’ Matthew Trevithick