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Canadian government settles COVID-19 dispute with church

Decision ends three-year legal battle over in-person church services during pandemic lockdowns

A protester against mandates related to COVID-19 restrictions in downtown Toronto, Ontario, in February 2022 Getty Images/Photo by GEOFF ROBINS/AFP

Canadian government settles COVID-19 dispute with church

In January 2021, Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario, held its first service in contempt of court despite heavy restrictions placed on indoor worship services due to the Canadian province’s COVID-19 lockdowns.

“We’ve had hundreds of baptisms where people point back to that Sunday as the event where things started to change for them,” Senior Pastor Jacob Reaume said. “Either that’s when they heard about the church, or that was their first Sunday in church and things started to change, and they were saved.”

Trinity Bible Chapel’s 600-seat facility chose to continue holding in-person services during COVID-19 lockdowns even while facing millions of dollars in fines.

Earlier this month, the Canadian government resolved its case against Trinity Bible Chapel and dropped charges against six church elders. The church entered a “not guilty” plea but agreed to a minimal statement of facts, which repeated what had already been communicated to the media and on the Internet.

Although the charges against the elders were dropped, the church was fined the equivalent of about $28,850 in U.S. dollars. In total, Reaume said the congregation has had to pay about $208,000 in fines over the years for violating the gathering restrictions set by the Reopening Ontario Act passed in July 2020. Donations from around the world covered most of those fees. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a legal advocacy organization that takes a socially conservative approach to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, provided legal services pro bono.

Premier Doug Ford, Ontario’s head of government, first declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, invoking the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, which required all government departments in the province to create an emergency management plan. A few months later, the passage of the Reopening Ontario Act gave the government extensive powers to change lockdown regulations at any time.

Reaume initially complied with the lockdown orders because he, like many others, thought it would take just two weeks to “flatten the curve.”

“At that time, I think we thought it was reasonable,” said Reaume. “I regret that now, but we did think it was reasonable.”

Shortly after the initial lockdown restrictions, Reaume became vocal about his opposition to closing churches; at first, some of the elders and members were hesitant, and some families left the church. Trinity faced criticism from evangelicals across Canada who were outspoken in following the lockdown rules. By the summer, all of Trinity’s leaders were in agreement, but by then, restrictions had been lifted.

In the fall of 2020, the elders pledged to remain open even if the government ordered new lockdown measures. In December 2020, Ford restricted worship services to 10 people while essential retail stores were allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity with physical distancing.

Trinity held in-person services in December and incurred its first charges and fines.

“Initially, the police all showed up at the doors of each one of the elders,” Reaume said, adding that each elder faced the possibility of a year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000 Canadian dollars.

Despite the fines and charges escalating with each worship service, Reaume and the elders believed it was a worthwhile endeavor. “We each had to come to the place where each elder had to say, ‘You know what, the church is worth it, the Lord is worth it,’” he said.

From December 2020 to June 2021, Trinity continued to meet, surpassing the gathering capacity restrictions stipulated by the act. Authorities filed 78 charges in connection with these services. In April 2021, provincial authorities seized the church’s facility and changed the locks, forcing church members to meet outside.

Chris Fleury is a lawyer with the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms who joined the team working on Trinity’s legal case in January 2023. The crux of Trinity’s arguments for holding services was in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the freedom of conscience and religion. Fleury said that Section 1 of the Charter contains the “reasonable limits clause,” leading some to argue that the government could infringe on constitutional freedoms during a state of emergency like a pandemic.

In 2022, Trinity appealed to Ontario’s Superior Court with a constitutional challenge, but the court ruled that the restrictions were justified under Section 1. Trinity then filed for its case to be heard at the Supreme Court of Canada in conjunction with a case from another church affected by the lockdowns in Ontario, Aylmer Church of God. In August 2023, the higher court declined to hear the cases.

Nathanael Wright is the Canadian director of the Ezra Institute, an evangelical think tank and worldview training organization based in Grimsby, Ontario.

He said that Canada’s current cultural landscape fails to recognize the separation of church and state. Wright explained that the phrase “separation of church and state” is often misconstrued by pro-abortion advocates to tell Christians to stop putting restrictions on abortion, yet we must look at it “the other way around.”

“When a government begins to restrict freedoms, whether they perceive they are justified or not, then the church doesn’t fall under state categories,” he said. “As a Christian, the concept of sphere sovereignty gives God all the authority in heaven and on earth and he brings authority and delegation to various spheres.”

Reaume said that the experiences of the last few years have only strengthened his faith.

“We could have lost our church facilities. We could have lost our homes,” he said. “The elders could have been financially ruined and destitute, and, even if that was the case, I think we’d still say Jesus is worth it.”

Alexandra Ellison

Alexandra Ellison is a graduate of World Journalism Institute.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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