Police can, but won’t, lay charges over Aylmer, Ont. church service
MIDDLESEX COUNTY, ONT. -- Police in Aylmer, Ont., say that while they can lay charges under Ontario's emergency orders against a church holding drive-in services, they are choosing to educate instead.
Police have been consulting with the local Crown attorney after a drive-in service was held at the Church of God again on Sunday, drawing 61 vehicles.
Attendees listened through an FM transmitter without leaving their cars, which were parked in the church lot.
This was the third weekend such an event was held, and the third time it drew complaints from the community and prompted police to attend.
Police say safety is their priority and they have chosen to take “a measured and least intrusive approach in dealing with this community issue.”
There has been significant debate over whether this type of service violated Ontario’s emergency order against gatherings of more than five people.
Now police say they hope the church has a clearer understanding that “the gathering is in violation of the emergency order enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
A police statement goes on to say, “With this decision and education, we anticipate that the ‘Church of God’ organizers and parishioners will respect the emergency order in place to minimize the risk to their parishioners and community.”
The Church of God responded Thursday saying they are grateful for the support they have received and for the decision made by police, but it's unclear whether they'll stop the services.
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt said in a statement, “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.”
He points out drive-in services are being endorsed globally as a temporary measure that “allows for an expression of community without violating public health objectives.”
Nick Cake of Millars Law represents the church and says the church leaders believe they are not "violating the spirit of the law."
“If we have people, who are completely isolated from others in their cars listening to the radio, I don’t think that needs to be captured by a law of banning more than five people gathering in the same place.”
Still, Aylmer police Chief Zvonko Horvat tells CTV News, “I’m not saying there’s going to be a charge, what I’m saying is, we will respond to those complaints and we will investigate them."
Letter to premier decries ‘intimidation’ of faith groups
A letter from a number of MPs to Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday also has the church hoping for more clarity.
The letter says the police actions “weaken the goodwill that has helped maintain strong social distancing compliance, harm the well-being of religious communities and undermine our nation’s constitutional fabric.”
It does not specifically name the Aylmer Police Service, but calls a decision to hold participants in a drive-in sermon accountable an “over-reach.”
It calls for reassurance that faith communities will not be prosecuted for practicing their faith.
Hildebrandt tells CTV News, “I would be very very surprised if the premier has not been speaking directly to the people about this. Like I say, I just don’t see any reason why we won’t hear back very, very, soon...We want them to tell us a drive-in service is fine because we’re not breaking any laws and it is safe.”
- With files from CTV's Sean Irvine