Saint John pastor pleads not guilty to violating COVID restrictions, obstructing peace officer
Philip James Hutchings says he's contemplating a constitutional challenge
The leader of His Tabernacle Family Church appeared in a Saint John courtroom Thursday and pleaded not guilty on two counts of violating the Emergency Measures Act and one charge of wilfully obstructing a peace officer.
Some of the charges stem from what was described as a "packed service" on Oct. 10.
In a sworn affidavit, a peace officer who went to the church that day to verify compliance with public health restrictions said he was blocked from entering by two individuals who were wearing tags that said "security."
Allen Dow said he later observed some 100 people exiting the church and only a few were wearing masks.
Hutchings's defence lawyer, Jonathan Martin, spoke to the court by phone.
He told provincial court Judge Andrew LeMesurier that he'd be making a constitutional challenge in the Court of Queen's Bench.
Martin later told CBC News that those documents have yet to be filed and he declined to comment further on what kind of argument he was contemplating.
Meanwhile, the judge scheduled a two-day trial for Hutchings starting June 6.
Cody Butler, a junior pastor at His Tabernacle Family Church, will also face trial on that date.
He pleaded not guilty Thursday to obstructing a peace officer.
On Tuesday, LeMesurier is also expected to hear another charge laid against Hutchings.
It's not yet clear what that charge is.
Last Sunday, His Tabernacle Church set up tents on Ashburn Lake Road in Saint John.
New Brunswick's Department of Justice and Public Safety said it had been informed of the service as required by a court undertaking.
And a department spokesperson said Sunday's gathering was being investigated.
Last month, churches in Manitoba tried to argue that a ban on in-person services violated their charter rights, including freedom of religion and freedom to assemble.
However, Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal found the public health orders were reasonable limitations in the context of the pandemic.
While fundamental freedoms should not disappear in a pandemic, Joyal said, he accepted that the Manitoba government had to make swift, decisive decisions in order to regain control of the virus and save lives.
As Hutchings left the courthouse Thursday, he declined to talk about the constitutional case that was mentioned in court.
He said he'd be able to provide more information "very soon."