A controversial church in Aylmer, Ont., known for defying COVID-19 restrictions is facing a new set of fines after it was found to be in contempt of a court order for a second time.
Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas on Monday ordered $66,000 in new fines and costs against the Church of God and two of its leaders after he ruled they have continued to defy a court order to avoid gatherings despite the provincial stay-at-home order.
Earlier this year, Thomas had ordered the Church of God to stop holding indoor gatherings that exceed provincial limits.
On April 30, Thomas had found the church had defied his orders after he viewed a number of Sunday services that were streamed online by the church.
On May 14, the church, along with two of its pastors, were dealt more than $100,000 in fines, with the church ordered to be locked up until the province allows for indoor church gatherings at 30 per cent capacity.
The church returned to court on Monday for a second contempt ruling after it was accused of having defied Thomas’ order soon after being handed down the fines.
In the three Sundays since the fines were handed down, Aylmer police have laid charges for outdoor services held at the church on May 16, May 23 and May 30, all of which were streamed online by the church.
Police have estimated that the smallest of these gatherings had just under 300 people in attendance, while the largest had more than 400.
Speaking to the May 16 gathering, Crown attorney Lisa Brost said the Sunday service showed an escalated defiance from the church’s leaders.
Brost makes reference to assistant pastor Peter Wall who could be seen in a livestream leading the church’s choir and addressing the crowd, despite having been fined by the court just two days prior.
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt can also be heard making comments that Brost said showed his defiance to the court order.
“I am not locked down this morning. … (What) we are facing behind me are the locked doors that somebody thought they had the authority to lock and we are here because we have the authority of God on our side,” Hildebrandt said during service.
Hildebrandt can be later seen in the service reading out the list of fines handed out during the May 14 hearing. He then told the crowd, “All I can say is, I will see you next Sunday,” which prompted a reaction from the large crowd, according to Brost.
“The violation of this order of the court was intentional,” Brost said.
“As with regard to the prior conduct, the contenders deliberately did exactly what they knew they were not permitted to do.”
Brost sought more than $80,000 in fines for the Church of God, Hildebrandt and Wall, all to be paid immediately.
As for the church’s lockup, the Crown wanted that to remain in effect until all existing fines are paid in full.
The church’s lawyer, Lisa Bildy, reiterated a number of arguments she had made in previous hearings.
This included referring to COVID-19 restrictions as “destructive to liberal democracy,” as well as a history “between the Aylmer police chief and (Hildebrandt), and the rise of aggressing a community activist, which has contributed to an escalated situation.”
Bildy added that the “burden of all of this enforcement has fallen to the church without any evidence whatsoever that their continuing to meet has caused any outbreaks or illness, let alone death, over the last year.”
“Was there an order? Yes. Did the church have knowledge of it? Yes. Did they breach it? Yes,” Bildy told the court.
“They met outside in open air rather than inside their church, but still that is a breach of these draconian and unprecedented restrictions imposed on the citizens of Ontario.”
Bildy referred to the fines sought by the Crown as “oppressive,” and said it is “unduly punitive” to bar the church from appealing its lockup in court until all fines are paid in full.
Thomas handed down his decision and penalties immediately after hearing from both lawyers, noting that “we have been down this road before.”
“Much of my previous reasons for contempt and the sanctions granted then apply here, except of course most of the mitigating factors have evaporated with the continued activity,” Thomas said.
Thomas summarized Bildy’s defence of the church as “there are lots of other people and numerous other groups defying the law that seeks to protect the public, why are you picking on this church?”
“That argument, quite frankly, is more fitting for the schoolyard than it is for the courtroom,” Thomas said.
“There is a law, there is a court order, there are continued, brazen, self-promoting acts of breach.”
Thomas issued the following fines after ruling the church was again in contempt:
- $35,000 from the Church of God
- $20,000 from pastor Henry Hildebrandt
- $6,000 from assistant pastor Peter Wall
- $5,000 in legal costs
The church is still allowed to appeal to the court to have its lock removed, yet Thomas said “the court will take into account the fact that fines may or may not be paid in any subsequent application.”
All fines are to be paid immediately.