Ontario judge dismisses churches’ challenge against COVID-19 rules

Ontario judge dismisses churches’ challenge against COVID-19 rules

by Sue Jones
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Two Ontario churches that challenged the province’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings, claiming they violated their right to freedom of religion and assembly under the Constitution, have lost in court. 

May 2 Church Of God Livestream

The Church of God in Aylmer, Ont., live-streamed in-person services, such as this gathering on May 2, 2021, in defiance of Ontario’s emergency orders. (Church of God at Aylmer/YouTube)

Two Ontario churches that challenged the province’s COVID-19 religious gathering restrictions, claiming they violated their right to freedom of religion and assembly under the Constitution, have lost in court. 

Ontario Superior Court of Justice Renee Pomerance, who oversaw the hearing held at the end of January, released her decision Tuesday. 

The Church of God in Aylmer, Ont., and the Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ont., were charged in the spring of 2021 for various infringements of the public health restrictions put in place to help curb the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

Pomerance writes in her decision that she agrees that religious gathering limits did infringe on the ability of the complainants to engage in religious activity as a congregation, and that the gathering limits had negative impact on the psychological well-being of church members.

“Yet, it remains the fact that, despite the claimants’ characterization as such, there was never a complete ban on religious gatherings or religious activity,” she concludes.

She explains in her decision that while other means of gathering were not ideal, including periods where outdoor services were allowed or in smaller indoor settings, they need to be understood within the broader context of the pandemic. 

“Many sacrifices were required of many individuals and institutions in the interests of public health. Religious institutions were affected, but no more than was reasonably necessary and for no longer than was reasonably required,” Pomerance wrote.

Trinity Bible Chapel

Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ont., shown on April 25, 2021, was also charged with with various infringements of the public health restrictions. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The justice said she had the benefit of reading the decisions on similar charter challenges brought forward by churches in Manitoba and in British Columbia, where cases were also dismissed. But she says her decision is based solely on the evidence presented to her by the Ontario parties. 

Pomerance said she was not tasked with weighing in on whether the law was broken by the Aylmer and Waterloo churches, as they have been charged by other courts.

But she does say in the conclusion of her ruling, that the churches showed a lack of respect when the province was trying to accommodate them by tailoring restrictions and easing them when it was possible to do so.

“Full accommodation of religious freedom would not have resulted in ‘legitimate inconvenience’ for government. It would have represented a wholesale abdication of government responsibility to act in the public interest. It would have meant turning a blind eye to threat of severe health consequences for a large swath of the population.” 

At the time of publication, the Church of God and Trinity Bible Chapel had not been reached for comment. 

Read the entire decision here:

  • Ruling on constitutional validity of religious gathering restrictions

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