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A few highlights of our drive-in service, Sunday, May 10, 2020
A few highlights of our drive-in service, Sunday, May 3, 2020
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (jccf.ca) today announced that it will file a Charter challenge against the Ontario government, on behalf of the Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario, for its infringement of the church’s freedom of peaceful assembly. Ontario authorities have threatened to fine the church despite its use of strict “social distancing” measures that eliminate any discernible risk to public health during their “drive-in” church services where people stay inside parked vehicles.
The Church of God, like other congregations across the country, has been prevented from holding in-person services, but found a creative and safe way to bring parishioners back together for worship while ensuring member and public safety. A drive-in service was held for the last three Sundays in their church parking lot, with congregants remaining in their vehicles with the windows up, listening to the service on the radio. Only members of the worship team, no greater than five in number, are permitted outside of their vehicles, and they also follow strict physical distancing guidelines.
Despite successfully conducting two such services with the approval of police, complaints were made by people who saw a photo of the Aylmer Church of God parking lot, and mistakenly assumed that the congregants were inside the building. The Aylmer Police Chief then threatened, on April 20, that any further services would be considered a breach of the law and subject to stiff penalties. Penalties could include fines of $750 to $100,000 and up to one year in jail.
The church held its third drive-in service on April 26, again abiding by all social distancing and public health protection measures. Police attended on the church’s private property, videotaping all of the vehicles and maintaining an ominous presence.
Although the provincial Crown Attorney declined to proceed with charges on this occasion, the Aylmer Police Chief has declared that this was an opportunity to “educate” the congregation, and that police investigation could again follow if complaints are received.
The Province’s Order under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act prohibits gatherings of more than five people, including for the purposes of conducting religious services, rites or ceremonies. Despite the fact that many larger stores and businesses remain open, with varying degrees of success in limiting physical contact between customers, churches and other religious centres have been singled out and effectively closed.
The Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, like all laws in this country, must comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees citizens that the government will not infringe their freedoms of peaceful assembly and religion, among other fundamental freedoms. The onus is on government, not citizens, to show that the violation of Charter freedoms is “demonstrably justified.” Where there is a pressing and substantial concern, such as a declared public health emergency, reasonable restrictions may be imposed, but governments are required to violate Charter rights and freedoms as little as possible, only to the extent truly necessary to protect public health.
The Government of Ontario has had ample time to clarify its Order to ensure that it is not overly broad, and that it does not arbitrarily target religious groups. Recently, the Saskatchewan Public Health Authority reversed its ban on drive-in church services, after receiving a legal warning letter from the Justice Centre.
The Ontario government, copied on a letter from the Justice Centre to the Aylmer Police Chief last week, has failed to respond, leaving the church with no option but to commence legal proceedings.
“For many religious communities, coming together to worship is an important part of their faith, and while not perfect, solutions such as drive-in services allow them to exercise their fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and religion while still respecting the government’s orders to protect public health,” says Justice Centre lawyer Lisa Bildy.
“The measures taken by the Church provide much more safety to public health than long lineups of people waiting to get into the liquor store, or sitting in their vehicles bumper to bumper at the Tim Horton’s drive-thru – all permitted activities,” adds Bildy. “On Sunday mornings, the Church of God has the safest parking lot in town.”
“Citizens across the country are attempting, in a good-natured manner, to comply with the extraordinarily restrictive measures which have been imposed. The Covid-19 outbreak, however, does not suspend the exercise of the Charter. The restriction on religious gatherings, in which people exclusively occupy their personal vehicles on a parking lot while worshipping, is irrational, unnecessary, and not a minimal impairment of Charter rights,” concludes Bildy.
The Justice Centre is presently preparing court documents on behalf of the Church.
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and New Brunswick have all endorsed outdoor, drive-in services as allowable under their Emergency Acts, as well as California, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Kansas, Florida, and many other countries across the globe.
Ontario, now it’s your turn. Cars in a parking lot are not gathering, they are parking. Gatherings are defined by physical presence without barriers.
RE: FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS ASSEMBLY
April 30, 2020 – 14:00
We extend our gratitude to Canadians across the country that have prayed, called, emailed, commented, and messaged us this past week. The support and passion for freedom in this country has been overwhelming. God is sovereign and His Word will prevail. This nation was founded on the principles of religious freedom and peaceful assembly and we pray that we will enjoy these privileges for many years to come.
This afternoon, we received notice that the Aylmer Police Service will not proceed with charges for those that parked in our parking lot and tuned into the service that was broadcast last Sunday morning, as well as the persons that conducted the service from our outdoor platform. We are grateful for that and believe it is the right decision. This allows the Premier and his cabinet the opportunity to swiftly provide clear enforcement directives pertaining to the Emergency Act that uphold public safety while respecting the right of people to express their faith in a safe manner. We continue to hope for a political resolution to this situation that does not put our local police in an unenviable position, and we thank the Aylmer Police for their continued service and protection to our community.
Provinces across Canada and countries around the globe are endorsing drive-in services as a temporary measure as it allows for an expression of community without violating public health objectives.
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt
RE: FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS ASSEMBLY
April 25, 2020 – 17:00
This past week has been defined by an unexpected amount of upheaval for our faith community. As a matter of fact, it has been a moment of truth for Christians across Ontario and the country.
Last Sunday morning we held our second drive-in service in as many weeks, with the full approval, permission, and encouragement of the Aylmer Police Service. A follow-up call from a constable on Sunday afternoon confirmed no violations were observed by the officers present and that we were cleared continue to worship in this manner until this crisis abates.
Tomorrow morning, at 10:30, the Lord willing, we will hold our third drive-in service under the threat of hefty fines, disruption, and physical roadblocks by order of the Aylmer Chief of Police. We have attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach an acceptable compromise with him these past 6 days. Regrettably, he has allowed his judgement to be clouded by one inaccurate post on Facebook that generated hundreds of comments and 15 complaint calls to the police service (this post has since been deleted). Our offer to hire off-duty officers from the Aylmer force, to ensure compliance with the law, was unceremoniously dismissed. Unfortunately, the Chief has also decreed that his officers must enforce the law as he interprets it, recklessly abandoning the discretion and interpretation used successfully in the past weeks, both here in Aylmer and across the country and the continent. One thing is clear to us at this moment, he finds himself on the wrong side of history and we extend our gratitude and pray for blessings and wisdom on the officers of the Aylmer Police Service as they are thrust into this unenviable position.
Our local MPP, Minister Jeff Yurek, has been a tremendous help for us during this crisis. We are grateful to him and his constituency office for their advocacy on our behalf. Their communication has been consistent and responsive, but we are still awaiting further guidance from the Attorney General. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms deserves special mention for their assistance. They have worked overtime to find a solution and clarify any legal questions we had. Several prominent London law firms have reached out to us and provided invaluable, precise legal advice and we expect to hear more from them in the coming days.
Drive-in services at a place of worship are not illegal and there is absolutely no legal foundation for such a claim. Parades are specifically forbidden under the Ontario EMCPA and yet no fines are levied for such daily displays across Ontario, and, I might add, rightfully so. In fact, police officers are actively participating in such parades, with impunity. Liquor stores are considered essential and their parking lots are not under any scrutiny. Liquor is essential, but God is not? Drive-thru establishments are under no threat of closure and their parking lots are regularly filled with customers looking to have a chat with their friends. We are not asking for special treatment or privileges, equality would be satisfactory.
We have considered returning to our livestream broadcasts alone and complying with an interpretation of the Emergency Act that is an abrogation of the rights of all Canadians of faith. However, we cannot do so in good conscience. We have arrived at a point where we must draw a line in the sand and stand up for all who value justice and reject unreasonable, unjustifiable curbs of our freedoms.
Everyone is welcome to join us tomorrow in a livestream broadcast of our service that will be posted on our website at www.churchofgod.com. We will not be gathering for a service as defined by the Act, but our parking lot will be open to anyone that wishes to park there, stay in their vehicle at all times with their windows rolled up, and tuned in to the station that will be posted on the signage onsite.
We will not condone any show of force or resistance to the police. In fact, we strongly condemn it. Christians are peaceful people and have always sought the opportunity for peaceful assembly, as guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“And the LORD, He it is that doth go before thee; He will be with thee, He will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.” Deuteronomy 31:8
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt
April 22, 2020 – 14:00
We are grateful to our federal, provincial, and municipal government leaders for their commitment to public service during this time of crisis and appreciate their responsibility for the wellbeing of the people they serve.
The COVID-19 crisis has rapidly changed a lot of what our society considers normal and essential in a few short weeks. Faith communities have not been unaffected, in fact they have been singled out in many cases across the world and especially in Canada and certain states, south of the border. The Bible teaches Christians to be good citizens and obey the reasonable demands of our government. It does not, however, teach blind obedience to the authorities when onerous restrictions are placed on our freedoms. In fact, we are guaranteed the right to religious freedom and peaceful assembly in the Canadian Constitution, subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. We now find ourselves debating what constitutes a justifiable, reasonable limit.
This past Sunday, April 19, 2020, we conducted a drive-in service at our meetinghouse parking lot in Aylmer, Ontario. Contrary to widely shared social media posts, attendees listened in to the service via low-power FM transmission while remaining in their vehicles, with their windows rolled up to ensure physical distancing requirements were adhered to. Strict guidelines were prescribed prior to the service and compliance was strictly enforced by our team. The service itself was conducted by 5 persons from an open-air platform that was visible to those in the parking lot. The meetinghouse itself was closed to the use of anyone, including bathroom facilities. There was no physical gathering at this location that contravened the Emergency Act, at any time.
Prior to this, our congregation continued to meet in accordance with previous guidelines of 50 or fewer persons in our building and on Easter Sunday there was a smaller drive-in service where those that participated in their vehicles livestreamed a service from another congregation, but, again, with no physical interaction. The Aylmer Police attended each one of these services and found no one in violation of the current Emergency Act. We have actively reached out to them and informed them of our intentions prior to the April 19th service.
We were informed Monday, April 20th, by the Aylmer Police that they had sought the opinion of the Crown Attorney’s Office and that they were of the opinion that we were, in fact, in violation of the Emergency Act and that they would be taking active enforcement action if any further drive-in services were held in the future.
Now, we find ourselves confronted with a much greater dilemma than just deciding on what we do next Sunday. The question is, what is essential? If faith and the communal expression of faith is not essential, then is this an attack on faith (for we strictly followed all physical contact guidelines)? We are not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment. Christians have always believed that their faith and the reasonable expression of that faith is essential to their general well-being, as well as their mental and spiritual health. We believe that being arbitrarily separated from each other is detrimental to our community.
Just 300 meters south of us, during our service, hundreds of people interacted in a local grocery store and its parking lot. The same thing happened at the local Beer Store, LCBO, Tim Horton’s parking lot, Dollarama, and the list goes on. Our drive-in service did not endanger the public, in fact we took far more stringent measures than any major retailer has done during this entire crisis. Yet, it is our faith community that is singled out for public criticism, false accusations, and a directive to cease any active operations, whether they follow the guidelines provided by the government or not.
It is imperative that we find a resolution to this as quickly as possible. There must be an allowable expression of faith that is deemed essential while we are allowing the interaction of customers at establishments that exist solely for the sale of alcohol, coffee, donuts, and fast food.
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt
*** COVID-19 ADVISORY ***
Service times may be impacted. Please contact us for more information.
9:30 AM – Sunday School for all ages
10:30 AM – Morning Service
5:00 PM – Evening Service
7:00 PM – Midweek Service
|Postponed||International Campmeeting, West Milton, Ohio, USA|
Human foosball was a real hit with all who tried it!
Church of God Academy
Started in the fall of 1998, our school has proved to be a tremendous blessing for our parents and their children. As a school run cooperatively by parents, it provides a haven for children to be protected from the growing negative influences such as drugs, violence, sexual abuse, and Hollywood culture prevalent in the public school system. We thank God for a safe place to educate our precious children in an environment conducive to both academic and personal spiritual growth.
First settled by John Van Patter in 1817, the town of Aylmer has grown to be a small town of 7,500 people. Located near the north shore of Lake Erie, Aylmer has a diverse population, among them many immigrants of Dutch, German, Italian, and Belgian origin, as well as thousands of Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites from Mexico. There is also a sizable Amish community a few kilometers NE of town that was settled in the 1950’s by families from Ohio.