Two men are facing provincial charges after a church in Aylmer, Ont., held an entire indoor, in-person service on Sunday.
Sunday’s service, in contravention of provincial regulations in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, is the latest in a series of escalating incidents involving the Church of God and its pastor, 57-year-old Henry Hildebrandt.
“Our concern is basically with the health and safety of those individuals that are inside the church with the current pandemic issues, and certainly that then being the concern for the greater community and the potential for further spread of this disease,” Aylmer police chief Zvonko Horvat told Global News.
On Monday, police said a 57-year-old man and a 26-year-old man are charged with hosting an event exceeding the number permitted in connection with the Jan. 31 incident. Horvat would not name the individuals charged, but did say they are both from Aylmer and both “associated with the particular church.”
“As of right now, we’re not planning to charge anybody else, but certainly once we review all of the social media, there is a potential for other charges,” he added.
Investigators say a charge has also been laid against the church corporation.
Fines under the Reopening Ontario Act can vary, but a person who violates an emergency order could be issued a summons in which the court would determine a penalty upon conviction, that could include a fine of up to $100,000 and a year in jail.
The province has also set up a minimum $10,000 fine for hosts or organizers of parties in violation of gathering laws.
Meanwhile, corporations which violate an emergency order could face a fine up to $10,000,000 upon conviction.
The Sunday before, on Jan. 24, a crowd of roughly 100 people gathered inside the church. In a video posted to YouTube, the pastor could be heard saying, “we’re not having service, we’re just touring.”
Police identified at least 47 individuals in connection with that incident, including 16 people police said were from out of town.
Charges were also previously laid in connection with a church service on Dec. 27, 2020 and a resulting gathering on Jan. 6.
Police had attempted to serve a summons to Hildebrandt for the Dec. 27 service, but he contacted police by phone and requested he be served the summons at the local church, police previously said in a statement which did not name the pastor.
When officers arrived at the church on Jan. 6, they were met by a crowd of approximately 100 people in the parking lot, police said.
As a result of that Jan. 6 gathering, Hildebrandt was issued an additional charge under the Reopening Ontario Act for hosting an event whose capacity exceeded the number permitted.
He has also been charged under the act for attending a large rally in London in November that was held in opposition to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Hildebrandt and the Church of God have been vocal opponents to measures and restrictions put in place during the pandemic.
The church made headlines early in the pandemic for hosting drive-in services in the church’s parking lot that defied coronavirus-related restrictions and seemingly ignored warnings from local police.
Outside of the pandemic, the Church of God is no stranger to controversy, with a case involving the removal of children from their home and a resulting exodus of families into the United States and Mexico drawing international attention roughly two decades ago.
In July 2001, the Family and Children’s Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County investigated a complaint that the children of a Church of God family were being disciplined with sticks and belts, Maclean’s reported at the time, and seven children were removed from the home but were later returned to the parents.
Hildebrandt referenced the ordeal during Sunday’s service.
“I don’t know how many years it will take for our local authorities to learn one single thing, just one, all I’m asking is just learn one thing,” he said.
“When you touch one of us, you touch all of us. I thought we settled that in 2001.”
Horvat, who was appointed chief of police in 2018, was asked about concerns about longstanding tensions between the church and local authorities.
“No, to my understanding that has been behind… obviously, the leadership here is different than what it was back then. I don’t know all the circumstances what happened back then. But then again, you know, it’s a court process,” he said.
“As with anything else, it’s the courts that take on the carriage of these cases. Ultimately, the justices and judges make the decisions on convictions.”
— with files from Global News’ Matthew Trevithick and Ryan Rocca as well as The Canadian Press.