A Canadian congregation has been charged with violating lockdown rules when it held multiple outdoor worship services with more than 10 people in attendance after its church building was shut down by the government.
The Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario, held two services, one on May 16 and the other on May 23 attended by hundreds of people, that violated the Reopening Ontario Act because it exceeded the capacity limit.
Also known as the Roadmap to Reopen, Step 1 of the program involves allowing outdoor gatherings of no more than 10 people and non-essential retail being allowed at 15% capacity.
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt told The Christian Post that the services were held on the church's lawn, as their building was “locked up by the government on May 14 due to the Church meeting in spite of regulations.”
Hildebrandt said that his congregation hadn't had any confirmed COVID-19 cases, let alone COVID-19-related deaths, even though they have gathered for in-person worship since May of last year.
“It is important that people retain the right to choose for themselves whether a situation presents a danger to their health," said Hildebrandt. "We offer drive-in, online, in-person services to accommodate all those seeking for spiritual fellowship."
The pastor went on to say that he and his church “acknowledge Christ as our King and do not recognize the authority of the State as it pertains to the services and functions of the Church as prescribed by the Word of God.”
“When the State commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, we will obey God rather than men," Hildebrandt continued. "The supremacy of God is written into our Constitution, and we acknowledge that His sovereignty supersedes that of earthly government."
Local media reports that as many as 300 people attended the church's outdoor service on Sunday and was the seventh consecutive week the church violated rules restricting worship service attendance to 10 people. Since the start of the pandemic, the church has been slapped with multiple legal charges.
The doors to the church were locked under the order of Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas.
The Aylmer congregation filed a complaint against Ontario. The church is represented by the Calgary, Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. A hearing is scheduled for October.
Church of God in Aylmer had multiple run-ins with Ontario police in the past over its worship services, including last year when drive-in services were held at the church property.
In December, the legal group explained that the residents complained after seeing photos of the church parking lot during the drive-in services. Although congregants remained in their cars with windows up and listened to the service on the radio, those who complained to authorities "assumed that the congregants were inside the building.”
Aylmer Police Chief Zvonko Horvat told the Ontario-based London Free Press in an interview earlier this month that “tensions are escalating." He rejected the argument that the gathering limits were an attack on the congregation's religious freedom.
“There are certain things that governments take a position on for the betterment of the community and the safety of the community and, in actual fact, they are not prohibited from having service, so it’s not a total shutdown of religious services,” said Horvat.
“These are restrictions in terms of the number of people (for in-person service) based on expert opinion during this pandemic. They are allowed to do a drive-in service where they can worship and pray ... so I’m not sympathetic at all toward their cause.”
Horvat went on to “thank the community for being responsible and obeying the current rules,” saying that most Aylmer residents were adhering to the lockdown rules.
“We are working cooperatively with different groups, and all I ask is for the general public to be patient and wait for the outcome,” he continued. “99.9 percent of the people that live in Aylmer do that and I’m certainly proud of that.”