By Colin Postma
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario – a small, rural congregation that held church services in their parking lot in response to social distancing laws. I did not expect the level of response that post received. Clearly, this situation highlighted concerns about religious freedom for many in this province, and around the country!
The Ontario Government, using their emergency powers during the COVID-19 crisis, prohibits gatherings of more than five people. The congregation in Aylmer sought to respect the social distancing rules, while still gathering. They chose to gather in the church parking lot, but stay in their cars with windows rolled up. The pastor stood outside the building on a podium. Certain passers-by took to social media to report what they believed was a large gathering of people inside the building. This was not the case. The church doors remained shut, and congregants listened via radio to the message.
The emergency legislation and public health orders did not make clear that this method of meeting is illegal. After some back and forth with local police, the congregation was asked not to meet. The leadership of the church decided to go ahead with their drive-in service anyway, advised by their lawyers that the law was on their side. On Sunday, April 26th, the police decided video recorded the gathering but did not ticket or charge anyone.
This was the situation that brought a strong response from many in Canada who desire to defend religious freedom, including me. In my first article, I called on the provincial government to clarify whether this type of gathering is permitted. Thankfully, the government has now done so. Late on Saturday, May 16th the Ontario Government issued a new executive order announcing that church services in vehicles are permitted, with certain rules attached.
Let me first thank the Government of Ontario and the Premier for this response. This response defuses the situation by clarifying the law and respects the authority of the local church to call their congregants for worship.
I do believe the government desires to do right in this situation and is under pressure to find a proper balance between freedom of peaceful assembly and maintaining the health and security of citizens. This clarification allowing drive-in services adds weight to their commitment to uphold the right to religious freedom in this province. But it is not enough.
On May 11th, a letter signed by 245 Ontario churches to the premier calling for the reopening of churches. The letter has since garnered the support of over 400 churches. Here’s a small excerpt:
We would like the provincial government to support the reopening of churches and ministries by early June, pending any unforeseen circumstances. Given the access people have to other services like grocery stores and the recent announcement to open access to retail stores in malls, to garden centres and to other areas of public gathering, this seems like more than a reasonable course of action.
On May 20th, the Premier responded to this letter advising that worship in vehicles would be the only allowance. No details were given as to future plans.
For believers, the restrictions of COVID-19 has reminded us of what we had taken for granted. We cannot assume the state knows that worship is important. It is essential for us as church institutions but also as the body of believers to communicate that to the government. Many of you have done so. We saw many EasyMail letters being sent to Ontario MPPs and the Premier regarding this issue.
Finally, this development also speaks to the value of speaking up in a democracy like ours. Standing for the truth is worthwhile. Your voice does matter. In our current environment, you can be heard.
I encourage you to contact your MPP and the Premier about this issue. Even if you’ve done so already, I invite you to do so again. Perhaps you received a vague or unsatisfactory response? Follow up with another letter. The EasyMail linked below will provide you a template to build your letter. This will be cc’d to the Premier and the Chief Medical Officer.Email your MPP and the Premier!