Pastor of Saint John church jailed for a week after defying COVID rules
Judge calls Philip Hutchings's recent actions during pandemic 'reckless'
A Saint John pastor who was fined last week for not complying with New Brunswick's COVID-19 emergency order has been jailed.
Philip Hutchings of His Tabernacle Family Church was remanded to jail until the court proceedings resume next Friday.
But not before he got a tongue-lashing from the judge about flouting the court order he signed a week earlier.
Justice Hugh McLellan of the Court of Queen's Bench said Hutchings essentially "mocked" the order within two days of signing it.
"I have concerns about Mr. Hutchings's personal credibility," McLellan said.
The judge also took Hutchings to task for putting the safety of his congregation in jeopardy by not following the guidelines of Public Health and the rules set out in the province's mandatory order for managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
The judge referred to a four-minute video that was played in court, showing people going into and out of the church without wearing masks. A section of the video clearly showed an unmasked Hutchings coming to the door and standing in the doorway for a short time.
The hearing was held in connection with an application filed by the province to shut down the church for non-compliance.
That was averted On Oct. 8, when Hutchings agreed to comply until a court hearing could be held.
When the parties got to court on Friday afternoon, Hutchings's lawyer, Neil Clements, asked for an adjournment since he had just been retained and wanted a chance to review the file.
The problem, explained McLellan, is that he had already adjourned the case for a week — "a week of non-compliance … and open defiance."
McLellan said it was difficult to put "any weight or credibility" in Hutchings saying he would agree to abide by another court order.
He then invited Jason Caissie, a solicitor for the New Brunswick attorney general, to play the video taken by Public Safety officers outside the Rockland Road church on Thanksgiving on Sunday.
After it played, Caissie said the concern is that Hutchings might hold two services this coming Sunday that could become the province's next "super spreader" events.
"I'm disappointed that he would agree to a consent order to follow the rules on Friday afternoon, and then Sunday, according to that video, breach the rules," McLellan said.
The judge also gave a brief legal lesson on torts and criminal negligence, complete with photocopies of the Criminal Code with applicable sections highlighted.
He told Hutchings that following the guidelines established by the emergency order and Public Health actually protect the church from potential claims if a church-goer tries to sue after contracting COVID-19 at a church event.
He said parishioners look to Hutchings as their protector, "which he has not been to date."
Instead, McLellan said, Hutchings has been "reckless."
The judge then said he'd agree to the adjournment and asked Clements to check his calendar. They agreed on Oct. 22 at 2 p.m.
McLellan said he was still faced with how to protect the public in the meantime. That's when he announced he was going to remand Hutchings into custody.
"Sheriff's officers, take him away," McLellan ordered.
According to an 80-page court file, the church first came to the province's attention in September, when Hutchings posted on social media that his church would not require masks or proof of vaccination and would not impose physical distancing or limit the number of people who attend.
On Sept. 24, the province's updated emergency order said churches must choose between requiring proof of vaccination or holding services at 50 per cent capacity with distancing, contact tracing lists and no singing. Masks are mandatory with either option.
The emergency order also gives peace officers the authority to enter any building without permission to ensure compliance with the rules.
On Oct. 1, an official with the province contacted Hutchings and explained the rules. He agreed to comply, according to the court file.
Two days later, another official attended Sunday service at the church. According to her affidavit, she was the only person wearing a mask. She said no one asked for proof of immunization, there was no physical distancing, and there was congregational singing.
The officer left after about 10 minutes, saying she was uncomfortable "due to the COVID risks at this service."
Hutchings was then fined for non-compliance on Oct. 6.
On Oct. 8, the province went to court to get an "interlocutory order" to shut down the church for continued non-compliance, but Hutchings signed a consent order, agreeing to "make all reasonable efforts to ensure compliance" with the rules governing faith-based gatherings.
But two days after the agreement was signed, Public Safety visited the church and videotaped people coming and going, including the footage that was played in court on Friday.