Fines or faith? Pastor must decide if 'drive-in' Sunday service will go ahead

The pastor of a church in a small southwestern Ontario town never expected that his drive-in Sunday service would lead to possible fines, public criticism and a major dilemma about this coming day of worship.  

The Aylmer Ont. pastor says his congregation had stricter physical distancing rules than local grocery store

At the April 19, 2020 Church of God service in Aylmer Ont., more than 50 cars were counted in the parking lot. Police received more than a dozen complaints. (Provided by the Church of God)

The pastor of a church in a small southwestern Ontario town never expected that his "drive-in" Sunday service would lead to possible fines, public criticism and an ethical dilemma about how to proceed this coming day of worship.  

Last Sunday, Henry Hildebrandt, who leads The Church of God in Aylmer Ont., invited his congregation to meet in their cars in the church parking lot, windows rolled up, to listen to his radio broadcast of the service. 

"The service itself was conducted by 5 persons from an open-air platform that was visible to those in the parking lot," the pastor wrote. "The meetinghouse itself was closed to the use of anyone, including bathroom facilities." 

Hildebrandt said members of his congregation greeted each other by honking horns and flashing headlights.

The drive-in service was a hit with the 250-person congregation but not so with the local community.

The Aylmer Police received 15 complaints about the service, prompting Chief Zvonko Horvat to seek legal advice from Ontario's Crown Attorney's office. 

Horvat says he was told that under Ontario's Emergency Measures and Civil Protection Act "no person shall attend a gathering of more than five people for the purpose of conducting religious services, rallies or ceremonies." 

The police chief says that means his officers could lay charges if a service is held this Sunday. 

Attack on faith?

Failing to comply with an emergency measures order can result in a $750 fine. Obstructing a person enforcing an order is $1,000. A corporation that fails to comply faces a $500,000 fine.

"Now, we find ourselves confronted with a much greater dilemma than just deciding on what we do next Sunday," Pastor Hildebrandt said.

"The question is, what is essential? If faith and the communal expression of faith is not essential, then is this an attack on faith?" 

"The liquor store is open and the grocery store is open," the pastor said.

Hildebrandt is irked that only a few hundred meters away from his church, people are grocery shopping and interacting in stores. He maintains his congregation respected the physical distancing rules by never leaving their vehicles or rolling down the windows. 

With Sunday fast approaching, Hildebrandt says he has yet to decide how to proceed. He says he's reached out to Premier Doug Ford and his local MPP, Jeff Yurek. 

"Our drive-in service did not endanger the public, in fact we took far more stringent measures than any major retailer has done during this entire crisis."