A controversial church in Aylmer, Ont., will find out what penalty it faces when it returns to the Superior Court of Justice following a contempt ruling late last month.
On Thursday, the proceedings are set to resume with a decision on what penalties the contempt finding will yield, along with whether or not the court should lock the church’s doors.
Throughout the pandemic, the church has made headlines for its alleged violations of the Reopening Ontario Act.
A service at the church on Sunday led to the third straight week that Aylmer police have laid charges in relation to large indoor gatherings. The earliest brush with police over COVID-19 restrictions dates back to soon after the pandemic was declared when the church began holding drive-in services.
In his decision from April 30, Thomas reviewed a livestream of a service that was held at Church of God on April 25.
Thomas noted that the video depicted a choir of about 40 people along with about 50 other congregants in the church and above 100 vehicles in the parking lot. No one wore face coverings and social distancing was not practiced, Thomas said in his decision.
The judge also noted that Henry Hildebrandt, the church’s pastor, had “asked congregants to ‘squeeze in’ to allow more people to be seated.”
“It is clear from the video that Pastor Hildebrandt was revelling in the fact that this was a high profile event,” Thomas said.
“He introduced Randy Hillier, M.P.P. and Derek Sloan, M.P. and locked hands with them at the front of the church.”
Thomas added that Hildebrandt’s comments in the video “made it clear that he would carry on holding church services in defiance of the provincial regulations and the court order.”
In the video, Hildebrandt can be heard saying, “I have a got a stack of tickets for standing up for the Charter. Bring them on.”
Thomas’ decision concluded by finding the church, Hildebrandt and assistant pastor Peter Wall in contempt of his order.
Thomas pushed back the penalty phase of the ruling until Thursday in order to allow the church’s lawyer to present evidence and to allow time for those found in contempt to bring themselves into compliance.
The decision to lock the church’s doors, which was requested by the Ministry of Attorney General, is also being held off until Thursday in order to allow the church to “explore the issue of the harm posed.”
The church is being represented by Lisa Bildy, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
Speaking with Global News last week, Bildy said she planned on cross-examining Dr. Joyce Lock, the medical officer of health for Southwestern Public Health, who was brought forward as a witness in the latest hearing.
“I want to be able to explore the question of the harm that they allege is prompting the decision to want to lock the doors,” Bildy said.
“I’m hoping that the court will recognize that locking churches in this country is a pretty significant message to send and that there is still a real question as to whether all of this lockdown stuff is going to be, at the end of the day, justified.”
Bildy added that she’s sure the church members will continue meeting “whether the locks are on the door or not.”
The church, Hildebrandt and Wall may be in store for hefty penalties depending on the outcome of Thursday’s proceedings.
Under the Reopening Ontario Act, individuals found in contempt of a court order can face a fine of up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison. If a director of officer of a corporation is found in contempt, they can face a fine up to $500,000 and one year in prison. Meanwhile, corporations can face a fine of up to $10 million.
“The court can also increase a fine imposed by an amount equal to the financial benefit that was acquired by or accrued to the person as a result of the commission of the offence,” said Carolynn Conron, the founder of Conron Law, a boutique criminal law practice in London, Ont.
“So, if they got money (from defying the court order), say by way of donations or something like that, then that can be considered in terms of the fine.”
Conron added that Thursday’s hearings will take into account proportionality of the penalty doled out, along with mitigating and aggravating factors.
The lawyer says insight into potential aggravating factors can be gained from the fact that Thomas delayed the penalty phase of the contempt finding until Thursday, in order to allow the church time to move into compliance with the judge’s order.
“That would be considered an aggravating factor.”
In February, a similar case saw church elders at Trinity Bible Chapel in Woolwich ordered to pay $38,000 after they were found to be in contempt of court.
The elders were also ordered to pay an additional $45,000 in court fees.
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