A Superior Court judge will decide on Friday whether a church in Aylmer, Ont., known for defying COVID-19 restrictions will be forced to lock its doors.
It’s among several penalties sought by the Crown after the Church of God, along with pastor Henry Hildebrandt and assistant pastor Peter Wall, was found to be in contempt of an order from Justice Bruce Thomas.
On Thursday, civil court proceedings resumed as Thomas heard submissions from Crown attorney Connie Vernon and the church’s lawyer Lisa Bildy.
On April 30, Thomas found the church, Hildebrandt and Wall to be in contempt of his order directing the church to stop holding large indoor gatherings that exceed provincial limits.
The contempt ruling was found after Thomas had reviewed evidence that included a livestream of a service held on April 25 that featured nearly 100 participants without masks or social distancing.
During Thursday’s proceedings, Vernon argued these services indicated the church had no intention of complying with Thomas’ order and stopping the gatherings.
The Crown attorney cited police reports that each service involved more than 200 people entering the church.
“The respondents took only 48 hours to defy this court’s restraining order and the finding of contempt, they are publicly rejecting this court’s process and authority,” Vernon said.
“The contenders have committed themselves, through all of these examples, to publicly and continuously defy the public health measures and encourage others to join them.”
The Crown is seeking to have all external doors of the church locked until COVID-19 regulations surrounding gatherings come to an end.
It is also seeking to have the following fines paid within 30 days of being issued by the court:
- $50,000 from the Church of God,
- $10,000 from Hildebrandt, the church’s pastor,
- $10,000 from Wall, the church’s assistant pastor
- $100,000 in legal costs.
Bildy, the church’s lawyer, argued to have the lockup shortened to when the province allows for places of worship to gather at 30 per cent capacity.
She also sought reduced fines that amounted to no more than what was paid in a similar contempt ruling involving Trinity Bible Chapel in Woolwich. In that case, church elders were ordered to pay $38,000, along with an additional $45,000 in legal costs.
Bildy referred to the fines sought by the Crown as “very draconian,” adding that the church and its members “will never be able to recover (from) this.”
“Peter Wall is a young man with a young family, I think he’s a very minor player in all of this, his sentence, in my respectful submission should be nominal,” Bildy said.
“He is not the one that is on the YouTube channels speaking out with the face of the movement, as Pastor Hildebrandt is.”
Bildy noted that the church was being peaceful and honest in its conduct, adding that their “sincerely held religious beliefs and convictions, and the commitment of the respondents to live by their conscience should be a mitigating factor.”
She also suggested that 60 to 90 days was a more reasonable period of time to pay the fines.
The lawyer argued the church had been unfairly targeted by media and were subject to a “toxic relationship” with police.
Bildy added that Hildebrandt, who’s been charged with numerous offences related to COVID-19 restrictions and has been spotted speaking at rallies denouncing the restrictions, never set out to be “a figurehead in a movement.”
This was shot down by Thomas, who said “it’s quite clear” the pastor had chosen the role he now has.
“He uses his pulpit as a pulpit to exert an argument to others to follow his example. It’s not simply about the word of his God … he’s chosen to be the face, front and centre, to this movement,” said the Superior Court judge.
Thomas also shot down accusations that the church had been unfairly targeted by media, adding that “Pastor Hildebrandt understands how the press works.”
“Pastor Hildebrandt, and the Church of God, is not simply conducting a service of worship. It’s positioned itself, front and centre, to lead civil disobedience with regards to the regulations.”
Thomas voiced even more concerns toward the end of the hearing, telling the court he’s worried about “the toxic environment in Aylmer.”
“This whole situation has turned a small community in southwestern Ontario into a cauldron of hostility,” Thomas said.
“My fervent hope is that somehow we can put things back to normal.”
The judge will hand down his decision when court resumes Friday morning.
Thomas also ruled that a constitutional challenge filed by the Church of God will be heard by the court between Oct. 4 and Oct. 6.
Following Thursday’s proceedings, Aylmer police informed Global News that about 30 vehicles were observed in the church’s parking lot at the same time as the hearing.
While police did not keep tabs on how many people went inside, the London Free Press reported dozens had entered with bibles in hand before leaving once the hearing wrapped up.