Fairview Baptist Church pastor charged with violating PHO: R v. Timothy Stephens / Stephens v. AHS et al  

Pastor Timothy Stephens has been the pastor of Calgary’s Fairview Baptist Church since January 2014. He has a background as a software developer, but then sensed a calling to go into the ministry, completing a Master’s in Divinity in 2013.

Prior to the imposition of Covid restrictions, there was nothing remarkable about Fairview Baptist Church that would see its Pastor arrested twice, jailed for 21 days, and facing a criminal charge and six public health charges, as well as public health charges leveled against the church itself. 

Fairview Baptist Church was a small church, with strong sense of family and a deep commitment to the teachings of the Bible. Gathering for worship is integral to their religious beliefs. They follow the biblical injunction to assemble corporately for worship and believe that failing to do so is a violation of the Scriptures. 

During the pandemic, Pastor Stephens spoke out boldly against government restrictions on worship services, and by 2021, Pastor Stephens had become noted public opposition to the government restrictions.

The Alberta government’s restrictions on worship services included mandatory masking of attendees, two metres of physical distancing, and attendance limits down to 15 people in late 2020 and into 2021. 

In early 2021, Pastor Stephens was issued charges for allegedly violating public health orders. The Justice Centre secured legal counsel for Pastor Stephens.

On May 6, 2021, Associate Chief Justice John Rooke of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued what might be the broadest restraining order in common law history. The order was directed at the Whistle Stop Café located near Mirror, Alberta. However, the order applied “anywhere in Alberta” and even to people acting “independently” of the Whistle Stop Café.

On May 13, 2021, the Justice Centre successfully secured an amendment to the Whistle Stop Order so that it no longer applied to those acting “independently” of the Whistle Stop Café.

However, the next Sunday, May 16, 2021, Calgary Police, at the behest of Alberta Health Services, went to Fairview Baptist Church and arrested Pastor Tim Stephens. The arrest of Pastor Stephens was claimed to be on the basis of the Whistle Stop Order.

Pastor Stephens was subjected to strip searching, and paired with an aggressive and threatening cell mate, while prison guards left him feeling helpless, refusing to answer his questions about unwritten prison rules and procedures. In being transferred to and from court in the days following, his ankles were shackled in chains. Lawyers argued, among other things, that Pastor Stephens should be released from jail, on the basis that he had never in fact been served, instead, police had in fact previously served a different man from Fairview Baptist Church, who they wrongly assumed was Pastor Stephens. After being incarcerated two nights and three days, Pastor Stephens was released from jail. The charge of contempt against Pastor Stephens for allegedly violating the Whistle Stop Order was withdrawn by Alberta Health Services on May 28, 2021.

At the beginning of June, Alberta Health Services had changed the locks on the Fairview Baptist Church, forcing them to meet elsewhere. Someone called police, however, to report an outdoor service. On Sunday, June 13, 2001, a police helicopter was spotted above Fairview’s peaceful outdoor gathering. The next day, June 14, Pastor Stephens was taken from his home by Calgary Police, and again arrested in front of his family. Pastor Stephens was charged with a criminal offence for failure to comply with a court order. He spent the following 18 days in prison, stripped of his Charter rights and freedoms, all while the Alberta government had failed to produce any evidence that outdoor services were a threat to public health, and was only released when the provincial gathering restrictions were removed on July 1st.

With the support of the Justice Centre, in May 2022, the criminal charge against Pastor Stephens for allegedly violating the Whistle Stop Order was dropped. 

The Crown subsequently dropped four of the six charges for allegedly violating the public health orders.

On September 15, 2022, Pastor Stephens went to trial on the two remaining charges. He was represented by Stephen Whitehead of Grey Wowk Spencer LLP. 

On November 1, 2022, Judge Fradsham released his judgment, finding Pastor Stephens not guilty of the charges of violating the public health orders.

While Pastor Stephens has been found not guilty of the charges that remained against him, the Justice Centre filed a Statement of Claim on his behalf to hold Alberta Health Services and Calgary Police accountable. The Statement of Claim seeks: 1) declaration that Pastor Stephens’ rights to liberty and security of the person and not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned, 2) Charter damages, and 3) costs. 

Ton August 31, 2023, the Justice Centre was pleased to announce that all charges for violating Public Health Orders against Pastor Tim Stephens’ Fairview Baptist Church had been withdrawn by Crown prosecutors.

This follows the consequential Ingram v. Alberta decision. The Public Health Orders that Fairview Baptist Church had violated were found to be ultra vires the Public Health Act and were, therefore, invalid. The Act requires that all decisions with respect to public health orders must be made by the Chief Medical Officer of Health and not by the Alberta Cabinet. In her concluding remarks, Justice Barbara Romaine stated, “While involvement of elected officials in these important decisions may be desirable and even necessary, this involvement should have been structured in such a way as to mitigate the risk of political priorities interfering with the informed and well-qualified judgment of the [Chief Medical Officer of Health], as provided in the Public Health Act, without ignoring the underlying public interest.” (emphasis added)“The Justice Centre is pleased to have been able to ensure that legal representation was provided to Pastor Tim Stephens, Pastor James Coates, Ty Northcott, and so many other courageous citizens who appropriately exercised their Charter rights and freedoms even when these were being unjustifiably violated by governments, from March of 2020 onwards,” stated John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre.

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