Canadian church sues province over COVID-19 rule restricting in-person gatherings to 10 people

Peter Youngren, founding pastor of Toronto International Celebration Church, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in a photo uploaded to Facebook on Nov. 2, 2020.
Peter Youngren, founding pastor of Toronto International Celebration Church, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in a photo uploaded to Facebook on Nov. 2, 2020. | Facebook/Celebration Church Toronto

A Canadian church has filed suit against a provincial government over a rule that prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people, arguing that it interferes with their religious freedom.

Toronto International Celebration Church announced the lawsuit in a press release, having filed the complaint on Tuesday in the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto.

At issue was a lockdown rule, implemented in November, that bans churches from having more than 10 people in attendance at worship services, weddings and funerals, even while secular places like big box stores and film studios can have 50% capacity inside their facilities.

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“Prior to the lockdown, the church, which has the capacity to welcome more than 1,000 congregants at one time, was operating pursuant to Ontario’s Red – Control levels at 30% capacity,” stated the church.

“They did so safely and following all public health protocols and recommendations. The 10-person limit represents a 99% reduction of the churches in-person capacity, and for all practical purposes amounts to a complete ban on in-person religious services.”

According to the Notice of Application that the church filed, TICC has been following various public health guidelines, including spacing out of attendees, wearing facemasks, and “enhancing” sanitizing and disinfecting practices.

“The church does not dispute the wisdom of such measures and, with the sole exception of the impugned provision, supports their imposition notwithstanding their impact on the free exercise of religion,” noted the notice.

“The impugned provision represents a 99% reduction on the number of worshippers who may attend an in-person service at the church. For the church, the impugned provision represents a near total ban on in-person religious worship.”

The complaint argued that Toronto’s restriction on worship “is not proportionate to its objectives and thus cannot be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Peter Youngren, founding pastor of TICC, said in a video message posted Wednesday to YouTube that “we are not COVID-19 deniers.”

“We have carefully adhered to all the government’s requirements regarding safe distancing, wearing masks and only operating at a 30% capacity,” he added.

“However, we are deeply concerned about equal treatment under the law. We want every business and institution, including churches, to receive an unbiased treatment.”

On Nov. 20, the Ontario office of Premiere Doug Ford announced that Toronto and Peel were being moved into states of lockdown in response to a rise in coronavirus cases.

In addition to the 10-person cap on religious events, businesses like casinos and bingo halls would remain closed while restaurants and bars could only operate take-out, delivery, or drive-thru.

Also, schools and childcare would remain open, while businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, big box retailers, liquor stores, and convenience stores would be permitted to operate at 50% capacity.

"With the numbers rising rapidly in certain regions, we have to make the tough, but necessary decisions now to protect our hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes, and every person in this province," said Premier Ford in a statement last month.

"We cannot afford a province-wide lockdown, so we are taking preventative action today by moving Toronto and Peel into Lockdown level restrictions and other regions into higher levels of restrictions. We need to take decisive action to stop the spread of this deadly virus."   

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