'Cauldron of hostility' bubbles in Aylmer, Ont., as judge mulls locking pandemic-defiant church's doors
Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas will deliver a decision Friday
A small town congregation's defiance of COVID-19 public health orders and the community's surveillance of parishioners have created a toxic environment that could come to a head Friday when a judge decides whether to lock the doors of the Church of God in Aylmer, Ont.
The church, Pastor Henry Hildenbrandt and Assistant Pastor Patrick Wall were found in contempt of court for continuing in-person services despite a court order to stop to meet COVID-19 restrictions.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas must now decide what penalty, if any, to impose.
"This whole thing has turned one small community in Ontario into a cauldron of hostility, one that has pitted neighbour against neighbour. I am deeply concerned about the toxic environment in Aylmer," Thomas told virtual court Thursday.
"This congregation and these people, although different than the mainstream population of southwestern Ontario, were living in peace and tranquility in this community in the past. Now, I see a splintered community, a fractious community."
The town church is one of several in Canada that are challenging the constitutionality of public health orders that prohibit gatherings, including church services. Those will be heard in October.
Locking the doors of churches in Canada is a poignant symbol of our democracy under threat.- Lisa Bildy, Aylmer, Ont., church's lawyer
At the beginning of the pandemic last year, the southwestern Ontario church held drive-in services, which were prohibited by provincial law, and then escalated to 200-person gatherings within the building, with no physical distancing or mask wearing.
The church, and its pastors and parishioners have been ticketed multiple times by Aylmer police. But physically locking all the exterior doors, as the Crown has asked, goes too far, argued Lisa Bildy, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents the church.
"Locking the doors of churches in Canada is a poignant symbol of our democracy under threat," she said. "This was two weeks to flatten the curve and has become 60 weeks and counting. No outbreaks have been traced to the church... I don't think we should be locking church doors in this country. Church is fundamental to these people."
Welcomes further fines
Many church members come from a Mennonite tradition, speak Low German (a variety or dialect of the language), and dress in modest clothing as a way to signal that church for them is way of life, not just something to attend on Sunday, Bildy said.
They [Church of God] are flouting the law and public health orders. Locking the door is the only way to ensure they won't access the building.- Connie Vernon, Crown lawyer
"Pastor Hildebrandt didn't set out to be defiant, he didn't set out to be a figurehead in a movement. He wanted his parishioners to have some community," she said.
He has now embraced the role of figurehead, said Bildy.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hildebrandt has embraced the No More Lockdowns movement, including a 2,000-person rally against COVID-19 restrictions in the small town. He has preached that the virus doesn't exist and encouraged defiance of provincial lockdown rules. His sermons, in front of a large congregation, are available on YouTube and Facebook.
The church and its pastors have "committed themselves to publicly and continuously defy the public health measures," said Crown lawyer Connie Vernon in her arguments to the court.
"They have stated clearly that they plan to breach any court order, they have encouraged civil disobedience, they've encouraged others to come to the church," she said.
"It is clear that [Hildebrandt] welcomes further fines and will continue to open the church. They are flouting the law and public health orders. Locking the door is the only way to ensure they won't access the building. There is nothing to suggest that they will stop inviting people in."
The Crown wants:
- All exterior doors locked until there are no more public health orders.
- For Hildebrandt and his assistant pastor to be fined $10,000 each.
- For the church to be fined $50,000.
- For the church to pay for $100,000 in court fees.
Bildy argued the court fees are much too steep and the monetary penalties too high. If the doors are locked, the pastor should be allowed to access the building sometimes to check on it, and they should be unlocked when public health orders are less restrictive.
Thomas said he will make his decision Friday, but added he doesn't see Hildebrandt as a passive player in the movement against public health orders.
"He has chosen the role he now has. He has chosen to be the spokesperson for the infringement of rights," said Thomas.
"He uses his pulpit as a pulpit to exert an argument to others to follow his example. It's not about the word of his God, it's also about the concerns that he is exhorting others to breach the regulations. He's chosen to be the face, front and centre of this movement."