Ford government amends prohibition on gatherings to permit drive-in religious services

AYLMER, ONTARIO: The Justice Centre is pleased to report that the Ford government in Ontario has amended its order prohibiting gatherings to now expressly allow for drive-in religious services.

The amendment, posted on May 16, 2020 to the government’s website, follows the filing of a Charter challenge by the Justice Centre against the Aylmer Police Service and the Ontario government last week. This court action challenged the government’s infringement of a church’s freedom of peaceful assembly, and asked the court for clarification as to what is permitted under emergency legislation. The Aylmer Police had repeatedly threatened to fine the Church of God of Aylmer, despite the church using strict “social distancing” measures to comply with the law while hosting drive-in-only church services. Police attended the drive-in services in a show of force, and filmed both church representatives and parishioners in their cars during the worship service. The police were fully aware that worshipers were not leaving their parked cars, and that they were not interacting with each other in person.

The province’s order under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act previously prohibited gatherings of more than five people, including for the purposes of conducting religious services, rites or ceremonies. Despite the fact that many stores and businesses remained open, with varying degrees of success in limiting physical contact between customers, churches and other religious centres had been singled out and effectively closed.

Like all laws in this country, the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act is subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees citizens that the government will not infringe their freedoms of peaceful assembly and religion, among other fundamental freedoms, unless the restriction on freedom is demonstrably justified. Where there is a pressing and substantial concern, such as a declared public health emergency, the government may impose reasonable and narrow restrictions on Charter freedoms, but the government must violate those freedoms as little as possible, only to the extent necessary to achieve an important goal.

“We are pleased that the Ford government has finally clarified the order, and is now permitting this congregation and others to worship in peace” said Justice Centre staff lawyer Lisa Bildy. “However, this could have been done six weeks ago without putting congregants in the uncomfortable position of exercising their freedoms, even in a manner which posed no public health risks, under constant threat of punishment.”

“As the province continues to reopen, I am hopeful that faith groups will not be an afterthought again, but will be permitted to broaden their ability to come together for worship in lockstep with the reopening of other businesses and institutions. Other provinces are already allowing outdoor services, and even indoor ones with reduced numbers and appropriate spacing. Ontario is quite a bit behind on this.”