The Supreme Court of Canada has declined to hear appeals from churches in Ontario and British Columbia that challenged pandemic restrictions on in-person worship. The churches had been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for violating gathering limits. Pastor Henry Hildebrandt of the Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario, expressed his disappointment over the court’s decision. “Truly a sad day for liberty and justice in Canada,” tweeted Hildebrandt. “The Supreme Court refuses to even hear our case, which directly affects freedom of religion, assembly, and speech in Canada. Not entirely surprising, but very disappointing.” Hildebrandt’s church, along with Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, had challenged Ontario’s pandemic restrictions on constitutional grounds, arguing that the limitations on gatherings infringed on their rights.
They lost at both Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice and Court of Appeal, which ruled that the restrictions were a justifiable infringement on Canadians’ freedom of religion. In May, the churches filed an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, but the refusal to hear the case means the appeal process is now over. “We are disappointed to learn that the Supreme Court determined that this was not a matter of national importance,” lawyer Hatim Kheir was quoted as saying in a statement from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). The JCCF also revealed that Hildebrandt’s church was ordered to pay $274,000 in fines and costs for violating gathering limits, including three outdoor services held in May and June of 2021. Trinity Bible Chapel was also hit with fines totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars, while parishioners were forcibly locked out of their church for several months.
The churches had to abide by a 10-person limit, while retail stores were allowed 50% capacity with physical distancing. The JCCF said fundamental freedoms have been violated in a manner that could not be justified in a free, democratic society. In British Columbia, three churches challenged the province’s total ban on in-person worship from November 2020 to May 2021, while gyms and restaurants were allowed to be open. The JCCF said the churches held in-person services in December 2020, adhering to all COVID-19 protocols. JCCF lawyer Marty Moore said that the churches would continue to assert their constitutional rights, as they still face prosecution over in-person services in 2020 and 2021. The evidence in this case establishes that the risk of outdoor transmission is negligible, said Ontario government expert witness Dr. Zain Chagla. The JCCF also argued that the harms caused by gathering restrictions outweigh any benefits provided and must be struck down.
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