The excitement was palpable at the “Church of God’ in Aylmer, Ont. Sunday.
They were able to hold their drive-in service without fear of repercussions after the province gave the green light for faith-based sermons just hours earlier.
“What a special day for the churches of Ontario,” says Henry Hildebrandt, the church’s pastor from the podium in the parking lot.
“Thank God we stood as one heart and as one soul, and this morning we won as one.”
Saturday night ‘The Church of God’ announced that Ontario Premier Doug Ford signed an amendment to the Emergency Management and Civil
Protection Act (OEMCPA) that provides guidelines and clear permission for all churches to hold drive-in or parking lot services.
“The feeling was jubilant,” Hildebrandt told CTV News.
“Our people were thrilled, no one need to be concerned and the police didn’t need to be there. We had a wonderful day.”
The letter signed by Ford and the Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell states that the OEMCPA does not apply to religious service, rite or ceremony if:
- Each person attending the gathering must remain in their vehicle that is designed to be closed to the elements
- Person must not be in a vehicle that contains members of more than one household
- The driver of the vehicle must ensure that it is positioned at least two metres from other vehicles
- No more than five people may conduct the service, and must maintain a two metre distance from anyone
- The building where the service is being held must remain closed except to those conducting the service
- No materials must be exchanged
Sunday was the sixth consecutive week they held a drive-in service.
Parishioners once again stayed inside their vehicles with the windows rolled up and listening to the sermon on a low-wattage radio signal.
It brought an end to a five-week showdown between Hildebrandt, the parishioners, the OEMCPA and Aylmer police.
The showdown between police and the church made national news when officers were monitoring the service with video cameras, and sent the footage to a provincial prosecutor.
After consultation police backed down saying “this decision is yet another example where Aylmer Police are taking the measured and educational vs. retributive approach in achieving compliance with Emergency Orders put in place by our Provincial leaders.”
“I’m honestly surprised it couldn’t have happened sooner,” says Lisa Bildy, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
“Other provinces were doing this as an early as Easter, and there we no public health issues at all.”
Bildy has been advocating for the right to hold the services since late April. After discussions with many officials, that didn’t resolve the issue, she launched a charter challenge this week. On Thursday, she got the response she was looking for.
“The onus is on the government is to show that these massive infringements on freedoms are justified,” says Bildy. “We’ve been sending letters across the country to medical officers of health, premiers and even the prime minster to do their job to make sure the fundamental freedoms in a free and democratic society are not being infringed unnecessarily. When we find solutions like a drive-in service that balances things quite nicely there should be no reason why the government’s don’t jump all over that and allow it to happen.”
Hildebrandt has maintained his stance that he never believed they were doing anything wrong. Now he can rest easy knowing that he has led the way for other faith-based groups in the province to hold these types of services.
“We were spearheading this whole thing,” says Hildebrandt. “I don’t regret it at all, it needed to be done. It’s a big victory for everyone and it’s good news for all of Ontario.”
And Bildy says she hopes that the freedoms of others across the country will be recognized in the coming months.
“As we start to re-open province I hope that Premier and his cabinet will keep in mind that faith groups consider themselves to be essential services as well,” says Bildy. “If they can accommodates social distancing, then i would like to see them be in lock-step with other reopening’s so that their buildings can be used that respect social distancing requirements and not be an afterthought like in this case.”