Toronto church challenges constitutionality

A Toronto church is challenging Ontario’s lockdown restrictions, arguing that the law which limits religious gatherings to just 10 people is unconstitutional.

On Dec. 8, an application was filed by the Toronto International Celebration Church (TICC) in the Superior Court of Justice seeking to declare the provincial COVID-19 response framework infringes upon its rights.

An affidavit, signed by the church’s founding pastor Peter Youngren, argues that the law violates religious freedoms and does “not represent a tailored response to the current COVID-19 health crisis.”

“At a time when many are suffering with isolation, depression and a sense of despair the most loving thing a local church can do is to open its doors wide open while maintaining public health standards,”Youngren said in an online video posted on Tuesday. Toronto and Peel Region entered the grey “lockdown” level of the province’s response framework on Nov. 23 in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Under the “lockdown” level, churches are restricted to in-person gatherings of 10 people indoors and 10 people outdoors while non-essential businesses, gyms, casinos and movie theatres are ordered to close. Meanwhile, essential services including grocery stores, pharmacies and big box stores that sell essential goods are permitted to stay open with capacity limits.

Prior to the lockdown, TICC said it was effectively operating under the province’s red “control” level which allowed for 30 per cent capacity for in-person services while following public health protocols. TICC argues that it should be allowed to continue in-person services with the same capacity limits as its church can seat more than 1,000 congregants at one time.

“We’re not COVID-19 deniers. We have adhered carefully to all the government requirements regarding safe distancing, wearing masks and only operating at a 30 per cent capacity. However, we are deeply concerned about equal treatment under the law,” Youngren said. He told CP24 there’s something you cannot replicate when holding services online, and not everyone has access to the internet.

“In the Bible, and we do believe and follow the teachings of the Bible, there’s something of meeting in person, there’s something unique to that, there’s a dynamic that doesn’t happen online, even when we are separated by 2 metres or more, it’s been 2 to 3 metres, there’s a special dynamic when we pray together and worship together,” he said.