Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas has ordered that locks be put on the exterior doors of Aylmer’s Church of God, which has repeatedly ignored COVID-19 public gathering rules and encouraged others to do the same.
Thomas said his decision will serve to set an example to the church and other people in the province who are contemplating breaking rules under Ontario law.
Thomas also fined the church $35,000, Pastor Henry Hildebrandt $10,000 and Assistant Pastor Peter Wall $3,000.
The church, Hildebrandt and Wall were found in contempt of court in April for defying a court order to stop in-person services to meet COVID-19 restrictions. The last few Sundays, the congregation inside the church numbered up to 200, with no one wearing a mask or following physical distancing rules.
Hildebrandt has broadcast his sermons on YouTube and Facebook in a public display of defiance, the judge said.
This location has been the crucible of the contemptuous activity. This place is part of the fabric of their lives, but these regulations were put in place to protect the community and to save lives.– Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas, on Church of God decision
“This location has been the crucible of the contemptuous activity,” Thomas said Friday morning. “This place is part of the fabric of their lives, but these regulations were put in place to protect the community and to save lives.”
Church of God is one of several churches in Canada that are challenging the constitutionality of public health orders that prohibit gatherings, including religious services. Those will be heard in October.
But the judge said he couldn’t wait that long to punish the church and its pastors for “openly and flagrantly” holding church services despite provincial rules and court orders to stop.
‘A wake-up call’
After the penalty was handed down, Hildebrandt posted a brief video on social media, saying, “Nothing will deter us.
“Nothing will stop the people of God. Our government right now is allowing unelected health officials to push our judges to make criminals out of law-abiding people,” he said from the pulpit.
“I trust this will be a wake-up call for us like never before. This is not the end. This is the beginning of where we are going.”
He added that he has “no ill will” toward anyone.
At the beginning of the pandemic last year, the southwestern Ontario church held drive-in services prohibited by provincial law, and then escalated to 200-person gatherings within the building this spring. Hildebrandt’s sermons have become more about encouraging civil disobedience than preaching about God, said Thomas.
More recently, the pastor has become one of the public faces of the anti-lockdown movement, welcoming politicians and others who are against masking and other public health measures to Sunday services. The Sunday sermons have divided the smally southwestern Ontario town.
“There is no doubt (that) Henry Hildedbrand, as pastor of this church, is the leading force and unapologetic voice for this activity,” Thomas said.
“Pastor Hildebrandt has the spiritual control over his congregation, and could make the breach stop if he chose to.”
The church doors will be unlocked when the gathering limits in Ontario allow for churches to hold services with 30 per cent capacity.
Church of God and the two pastors have 90 days to pay the fines, as well as about $69,000 in legal fees, said Thomas.
Leading up to his decision, parishioners gathered inside the church.
Aylmer’s police chief told CBC News he has been in contact with church leaders and expects the locking of the doors to go smoothly.
“We’ve had some positive interactions with the church this [Friday] morning and we will be looking to execute the judge’s order in the least intrusive way possible,” said Chief Zvonko Horvat.