A church in Aylmer, Ont., known for defying COVID-19 restrictions will be forced to temporarily lock its doors while the church itself, as well as its pastor and assistant pastor, face $48,000 in fines and $69,000 in legal costs.
On Friday, Justice Bruce Thomas read his decision on a contempt ruling against the Church of God from April 30.
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.
Thomas ruled on Friday that the Church of God will be locked until gathering orders change to permit a capacity of 30 per cent or more, at which time the respondents can bring the matter back to court to “define what, if any, restrictions to access continue to apply.”
Interim access will be granted for necessary inspections, maintenance and repairs with assistance from Aylmer police.
In a statement released Friday evening, the police service said congregants inside the church on Friday left after the court order was read out. The locks were changed by a locksmith Friday evening.
The church was also fined $35,000 with pastor Henry Hildebrandt fined $10,000 and assistant pastor Peter Wall fined $3,000.
Thomas described Hildebrandt as “the directing mind of the continuing contempt” and said that Wall was following his example and direction.
“Pastor Hildebrandt has spiritual control over his congregation and could stop the breaching conduct if he chose to do so,” he said in his decision.
As mitigating factors, the judge pointed to the respondents’ overall cooperation through the court process, the fact that church operated for almost a year of limited restrictions without issue and that this is the first finding of contempt, as well as the fact that both Hildebrandt and Wall are long-standing members of the Aylmer community.
Aggravating factors, however, were numerous.
Thomas referenced gatherings on April 7, 11, 18, and 25 as well as on May 2 and 9, which all occurred as the province was in the midst of the pandemic’s third wave.
The gatherings in May each exceeded 150 people at a time when governing regulations allowed for just 10, Thomas stated.
He also pointed to comments made during those gatherings, including on May 9 when Hildebrandt told the congregation that “the attack on the Church of God in Aylmer has nothing to do with a virus.”
He went on to describe the virus as a “made-up thing” and described the situation as “righteousness versus evil” and “Satan versus God.”
“Right now, we are at war, folks! We are in Canada at war right now!”
Thomas said the primary goal in this case is to deter others from ignoring regulations that “were enacted to protect the public from the spread of a deadly virus.”
His decision came a day after Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontario’s stay-at-home order would be extended another two weeks to June 2.
While daily case counts have fallen from a record-high 4,812 in mid-April to under 3,000 daily cases for the past four days, they’re still well above the less than 1,000 daily cases Ontario Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams would like to see before easing restrictions.
Aylmer has also been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and was even designated by the province as a hot spot.
The town, which has a population of roughly 7,500, has had 511 total COVID-19 cases as of May 14.
Southwestern Public Health says that works out to a rate of 6,820.6 cases per 100,000, or more than double the provincial average of 3,394.2 cases per 100,000 population reported by Public Health Ontario.
Jeff Underhill, who was born in Aylmer but currently lives in nearby Port Stanley, hopes Thomas’ decision will help the community to move forward.
“I think today’s decision is long overdue. It should have been done and been dealt with a long time ago,” he told Global News.
“Aylmer does not want to be put on the map of Canada for dealing with this kind of stuff. This is a beautiful, beautiful little town. Let’s keep it that way.”
In reaction to Friday’s decision, Hildebrandt quickly posted a video to YouTube where he said he chooses to be on God’s side.
“It is very sad to see that a country that calls itself a Christian country would reach a level so low as what we are seeing this morning,” Hildebrandt said.
“Nothing will deter us. Nothing will stop the people of God.”
— With files from Andrew Graham, Gabby Rodrigues and Nick Westoll