Charges dropped against Waterloo church open during pandemic, but fines remain

Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario
Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, OntarioCourtesy Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms

Charges have been stayed against leaders of a Waterloo, ON church that defied gathering limits during the pandemic, but a hefty fine remains.

In a Tuesday press release, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) announced the case against Trinity Bible Chapel has been resolved, resulting in the staying of charges against six religious leaders.

The chapel has been ordered to pay fines totaling $38,800 for hosting religious services in Ontario, violations of gathering restrictions under the Reopening Ontario Act.

In 2020, Ontario enacted the Reopening Ontario Act and imposed capacity limits on church services. These capacity limits were effective from 2020 to 2022 and varied in severity throughout that time. At their most restrictive, church service capacity was restricted to ten persons.

Trinity Bible Chapel was one of the most vocal advocates for Charter rights and freedoms in Ontario between December 2020 and June 2021. As a result, Lead Pastor Jacob Reaume and eight other church elders were charged under the Reopening Ontario Act for organizing six church services between January and June 2021. These services exceeded the gathering capacity restrictions of the act. Seventy-eight charges were laid as a result of these services; many of the charges carried a $10,000 minimum fine upon conviction.

In court proceedings, lawyers provided by the JCCF argued the violations of the freedom of conscience and religion, the first freedom guaranteed protection by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly were not justified.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice and Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of the gathering restrictions. On May 1 2023, Trinity Bible Chapel, the Aylmer Church of God, along with various pastors and elders, filed an application for leave to appeal their constitutional challenges to Ontario gathering restrictions to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The parties sought to argue that the lower courts had failed to assess whether the gathering restrictions infringed upon the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, as guaranteed by the Charter. On August 10 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the appeal.

Lawyers have negotiated an agreement whereby all charges against the elders of Trinity Bible Chapel have been stayed, along with all charges against religious leaders Michael Thiessen, Nathaniel Wright and Jacob Reaume in connection to protests in Kitchener-Waterloo. Trinity Bible Chapel will have one year to pay a $38,800 fine.

Lawyer Chris Fleury stated, “This outcome is a reflection of Ontario Courts’ failure to protect and uphold religious freedom. My clients and I strongly disagree with the Courts’ decisions with respect to their Charter protections but accept that the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal is binding on them."

"My clients are happy to finally put these tickets and events behind them, and to do so in a way that ends the prosecution of other religious leaders who were ticketed in the Kitchener-Waterloo jurisdiction.”

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