Aylmer church leader 'revelling' in COVID controversy: judge
There were so many people in Aylmer’s Church of God (Restoration) that Pastor Henry Hildebrandt told everyone to “squeeze in” to allow more people to have a seat.
That was likely enough for Superior Court Justice Bruce Thomas to find the renegade church and its minister in contempt of an interim order made in February under the Reopening Ontario Act to comply with the emergency rules concerning indoor gatherings.
But in his written decision released Wednesday, Thomas went further when describing the April 25 gathering at the John Street church and referred to the “flagrant and public” defiance as an intentional act to defy what the court ordered.
The hearing last Friday focused on the first Sunday after tougher lockdown restrictions were put into effect across the province that allowed only 10 people at a religious service.
In the decision, Thomas, who reviewed a recording of the livestream of the service, said there was a choir of about 40 people and another 50 congregants inside the church. No one wore a face mask and there wasn’t any evidence of physical distancing recommended to help protect people from spreading COVID-19, he said.
There were 100 cars in the parking lot, Thomas wrote, and Hildebrandt “was revelling in the fact this was a high-profile event.”
Also in attendance was MPP Randy Hillier and MP Derek Sloan, both of whom have made part of their platform a firm defiance of the emergency pandemic policies. Hildebrandt, Thomas noted, “locked hands with them at the front of the church.
“Pastor Hildebrandt’s comments captured that day made it clear that he would carry on holding church services in defiance of the provincial regulations and court order,” Thomas wrote.
What Thomas saw was Hildebrandt egging on authorities to charge him. “I’ve got a stack of tickets for standing up for the Charter,” Hildebrandt said at the service. “Bring ’em on! Bring ’em on! . . . Internationally, nationally, provincially! . . . Charge me! Charge me!”
“And once you got me dead in the casket, put the Charter in there and the Bible first of all and tell them at least the man stood for something,” he said.
Along with the church and Hildebrandt, assistant pastor Peter Wall was found in contempt because he could be seen in the livestream video involved in the service.
Thomas adjourned the penalty phase of the matter to May 13 to allow the church’s lawyer, Lisa Bildy, to put together affidavits for the church and to prepare any potential cross-examinations.
Also adjourned to the same date is whether there will be an order to padlock the church, giving time for Bildy to address “the issue of harm posed.”
Also at issue will be the Crown’s claim for legal costs.
Other churches have found those orders to be expensive. In February, a Waterloo-area church and six church elders were fined $38,000 and ordered to pay $45,000 in costs.
More charges are expected to be levied against the church and its congregants after it held another crowded church service on Sunday.