The Ontario government has issued a court order forcing a group of Mennonite churches in Chatham-Kent, Ont., to follow public health regulations relating to masking, capacity and social distancing, or face potential fines and sanctions.
Almost every Sunday for the past two months, Chatham-Kent police have laid charges to members of three Old Colony Mennonite Churches for violating limits on gathering sizes under the Reopening Ontario Act. In total, 16 charges have been laid.
On Thursday, the government issued the court order.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Old Colony Mennonite Churches were reportedly shut down. However, they took a different approach to the most recent lockdown.
"We were listening to our members, and they want to come to church," said pastor Peter Dyck. "That was the main reason that we said, 'No, we cannot wait for this. We got to see if we can have the service with a minimum attendance,' and well, usually there is more than what they allowed."
Seven charges have been laid to members of a church in Wheatley. Another church in Dresden has received five charges, and a third one in Charing Cross has four charges.
Police first visited the services on the last Sunday in April and then laid out charges for the following eight weeks until June 13.
For the majority of this period, the provincial rule was that indoor religious services could have no more than 10 people present.
The most recent charges were under Step One of the Reopening Ontario Roadmap, which limits indoor religious services at 15 per cent capacity.
Representative cites inability to determine numbers
A statement from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom argued that while the group is willing to comply with the capacity legislation, determining appropriate attendance numbers is difficult because it shuns the use of the Internet and related technology as part of its religious practice.
"They have been targeted for enforcement by police for holding Sunday services with greater than 10 people, the limit allowed in Ontario between early April and mid-June this year," the statement reads.
"The current limit has been raised to 15 per cent of room capacity as of June 11, calculated by a complicated formula that is not intuitive and is only accessible on the Internet, if one knows where to look."
The Justice Centre said that moving the communal services online is not a reasonable option for the group, and that there is no evidence tracing any of the area's COVID-19 cases to its meetings.
Mennonites do use technology, says director
Abe Harms, executive director for Mennonite Community Services in Aylmer, said that the idea that all Mennonites are backward when it comes to technology is false.
When it comes to the use of cell phones, social media and the Internet, rules vary among branches of the church, Harms said.
"Some of the colonies in Latin America, in remote areas, they want to get away from some of the worldly things. But that's not the case with most who have come to Ontario," Harms said, adding that the groups he interacts with are "amazingly connected" via WhatsApp groups and social media.
"I'm always amazed at what goes around there," said Harms. "I think all the conspiracy theories and any doctor that might call himself Christian, but is not of the mainstream, gets translated. Today, they have so much information, but many of them, it's just wrong information, but they do have it."
According to Harms, a lengthy history of persecution of Mennonites that goes back more than a century also feeds into a distrust of authorities.
Through his Low German radio program at Mennonite Services, he disseminates the latest COVID-19 information with the hopes of promoting vaccination and safety measures to the community.
Mennonite Services also works closely with the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit, which translates its own information into Low German as well.
Mistrust is common
Dyck told CBC News that Chatham-Kent's medical officer of health Dr. David Colby has attempted to tell him what to preach in his services in the past.
In response, Colby said that he made a point to avoid theological matters in their discussions, keeping the focus on infection control and pandemic precautions for his congregation.
He said it is a common theme for health units with Low-Speaking German populations to be skeptical of government interventions.
"I did have discussions from time to time with the chief of police and the bylaw enforcement division of Chatham-Kent, and basically agreed that the provincial law should be upheld," Colby said.
"The potential for explosive spread always exists when there are large indoor gatherings. Most of the faith communities in Ontario have chosen to abide by these regulations, which are put in place for everyone's safety, and we've had a lot of support from our partners in faith communities, by and large. I don't think it's really right to turn our backs on behaviours that may be putting those people and ultimately others — because no one exists in isolation in our society — at risk."
The Old Colony Mennonite Churches have been the only places of worship in Chatham-Kent to attract this kind of attention from law enforcement during the recent lockdown and the first step of reopening.
There is a large Mennonite population in Essex County, however the Ontario Provincial Police have said that no one has reported illegal gatherings in that area.
Once Ontario shifts to the second phase of its reopening plan on Wednesday, indoor religious services will expand to 25 per cent capacity.
The Old Colony Mennonite Church is not affiliated with the Church of God in Aylmer.