Aylmer, Ont., police are taking the next step in their investigation into a local church for allegedly violating the province’s emergency orders by holding “drive-in” church services amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Aylmer police announced Tuesday it was consulting with the Crown attorney’s office after The Church of God held a third parking lot service on Sunday, despite warnings from police.
Police said approximately 61 carloads of people could be seen filling the church’s parking lot as Pastor Henry Hildebrandt preached from a raised platform through the congregants’ car radios. Parishioners were asked to stay inside their vehicles with the windows rolled up.
Two police officers were on hand for the service collecting video and other evidence, which has since been packaged and sent to the Crown for consideration for prosecution, said Aylmer Police Chief Zvonko Horvat.
Specifically, police are looking into the violation of a portion of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act that bans gatherings of more than five people for the purposes of conducting religious services, rites or ceremonies.
“We’re looking at a charge under Part III prosecution,” Horvat said. According to the Law Commission of Ontario, Part III prosecution is for offences that must be brought before a justice for resolution, not through a set fine or a ticket.
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After the Crown reviews the evidence and applicable laws, Horvat says Aylmer police will consult with them to determine how to proceed, including whether charges should be laid.
“It’s a contentious issue for the community, and we want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in consultation with the Crown, who ultimately will have that responsibility of prosecution.”
A previous service held April 19 resulted in 15 complaints from citizens, police said, adding that talks with church leadership on several occasions to resolve the issue proved unfruitful.
It’s unclear whether the church plans to continue holding the drive-in services, but Horvat said if they do, police will be there, gathering evidence until they hear contrary from the Crown.
“And if we do go down that road, then certainly any additional breaches would be added to that original contravention,” he said.
Police have said it would be either the church itself or those organizing the services, such as Pastor Hildebrant, who would be charged, not churchgoers.
“I believe the actual fine up to $100,000,” Horvat said of the potential penalties.
Pastor Hildebrant has previously told Global News that the church would “absolutely not” pay any fines, adding, “we definitely plan to take it to court — whatever it takes.”
The church retained the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms to write a letter to police after authorities warned of potential charges in an interview with the London Free Press, published ahead of Sunday’s service.
A London-based lawyer with the centre argued to Global News on Monday that two services had gone ahead with no issues from police.
“The church was warned, and they made the decision as a church that this was something that they felt they had to do,” said Lisa Bildy.
“In any event, they had held two previous services successfully — with police blessing, by the way, who, as I understand, had come out and confirmed that nothing untoward had happened, they were abiding by all the social-distancing requirements and so on.
Bildy said the church felt inclined to hold the third service regardless of a change in tone from police, which she believes was brought about by community complaints that put pressure on police.
She also questioned whether the services could be considered a gathering under the emergency orders, given attendants stayed in their vehicles with the windows up.
“People can sit in parking lots at Walmart, they can go through the drive-thru at Tim Hortons in their vehicles, but when you put that parking lot in front of a church then somehow it’s a problem.”
In an interview with 980 CFPL on Saturday, Pastor Hildebrant made a similar comparison with liquor store parking lots.
“We are not asking for special treatment or privileges, equality would be satisfactory,” he said in a Facebook post.
— With files from Jacquelyn LeBel and Kelly Wang of 980 CFPL, and The Canadian Press.
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