Ontario government still seeking punitive enforcement orders against churches, despite province surpassing reopening goals

CHATHAM, ONTARIO: The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms was in virtual court today in Chatham, Ontario, on behalf of the Old Colony Mennonite Church and several of its members, as the Ford government obtained a court order to force the church to comply with restrictions and regulations on their worship services—or face potential contempt fines and other sanctions.

This small group of country churches, dotted across southwestern Ontario, is attended by Mennonites who speak Low German and who shun the use of the internet and other such technology. They have been targeted for enforcement by police for holding Sunday services with greater than 10 people, the limit allowed in Ontario between early April and mid-June this year. The current limit has been raised to 15% of room capacity as of June 11, calculated by a complicated formula that is not intuitive and is only accessible on the internet, if one knows where to look.

When the limit was only 10 people, it was impossible to hold the weekly church services which are of fundamental importance to the Mennonite community and their way of life. They raise and educate their children within the church community, and make decisions together as one would in a family. Putting their communal worship on hold for months at a time, or moving to online services, are simply not reasonable options, the Justice Centre told the Court.

Despite meeting regularly throughout the pandemic, public health authorities did not contact the Church about a single case of Covid-19 traced to their religious services. There was not one shred of evidence offered by the government today in court that would support the necessity of these ongoing restrictions, let alone increased enforcement measures against this Church. The only affidavits filed by the Crown were from police officers who charged members of the churches for past breaches of the gathering limits.

In fact, the Chatham Daily News reported today that there are only four Covid-19 cases in the entire county of Chatham-Kent—an eight-month low.

The Crown lawyers noted that they have a right under the Reopening Ontario Act to obtain an order, even without notice, requiring the Church’s compliance with the restrictions. In response, the Justice Centre argued that there is discretion in the Court to refuse to make such an order where there are exceptional circumstances, including the willingness of the Church to comply with the legislation. The church members have said that they will abide by the 15% limit, which is moving to 25% next week. Unfortunately, the Court declined to exercise that discretion.

These are quiet, peaceful people who are not seeking to become a lightning rod for controversy, but simply to worship together as they have always done. The imposition of this enforcement order may result in hardship for the Old Colony Mennonites, as scrutiny intensifies and they risk contempt of court proceedings for any transgressions, which could result in massive fines. The order will be in effect until all restrictions are lifted, which is currently unknown. The Ontario Government has recently extended its ability to make orders under the Reopening Ontario Act until December 2021.

“Protracted emergencies are always dangerous for societies, as the public willingly gives governments unprecedented powers which they are often loath to relinquish,” states Justice Centre Staff Lawyer Lisa Bildy.

The Church will now consider whether to bring a motion to challenge the enforcement order against them on constitutional grounds, as other church clients of the Justice Centre have done. The Aylmer Church of God and Trinity Bible Chapel will have their hearings at the same time, beginning on October 4, 2021.

“In the meantime, churches continue to be targeted by Canadian governments despite there being no evidence that they are a source of significant outbreaks,” continues Ms. Bildy. “The Old Colony Mennonites are people who live their lives in the real world. They work in hands-on jobs and interact in person with other human beings. They don’t have the privilege, or curse, of living and working amongst the fancy Zoom class for whom the lockdowns have been an extended break from their otherwise hectic lives.”

The treatment of churches in Canada is attracting attention outside our borders. Today, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, an American constitutional lawyer, expressed concern about Canadian authorities’ treatment of religious leaders during the pandemic, and urged the Commission on International Religious Freedom to consider adding Canada to the Commission’s Watch List.