The New Brunswick government has shut down a Saint John church it says violated the mandatory order governing religious gatherings.
Officials with Public Safety visited 63 places of worship last weekend, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said at Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing.
Only one, His Tabernacle Family Church, was non-compliant. She said the investigation is continuing, and the case is before the courts.
Shephard said the Saint John church was one of 600 inspections conducted around the province from Friday to Monday., the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
She said these included 279 retail stores, 118 restaurants, 137 licensed establishments, five indoor events, a recreational facility, a movie theatre and a gym.
Shephard said officers found "near-total compliance."
His Tabernacle Family Church was ticketed on Oct. 6, for failure to comply with provisions of the mandatory order."
On Oct. 8, Philip James Hutchings, the church's pastor, was in court in Saint John and signed an order agreeing to "make all reasonable efforts to ensure compliance."
On Sunday, several uniformed Public Safety officers attended the Rockland Road church, videotaped those in attendance and recorded licence plates.
A post on Hutchings's Facebook page says his associate pastor was arrested. The post was accompanied by a video showing a man telling officers they couldn't enter the church. He was eventually led away by a uniformed officer.
The man was later released with a promise to appear in court at a later time.
An official letter was sent to Saint John Cornerstone Properties, which is listed as the owner of the property at 348 Rockland Rd., according to the Service New Brunswick website. The letter says that the building will "be closed to public access until it is determined that His Tabernacle Family Church is willing to comply with" the Mandatory order.
Under the province's emergency order, churches have two options. They can choose between requiring proof of vaccination or holding services at 50 per cent capacity with physical distancing, contact tracing lists and no singing. Masks are mandatory with either option.
On Sunday, the church appeared to have a tent set up outside to check the names of people arriving, but the vast majority of people entering and exiting the church were not wearing masks or physically distancing.
The legislation states that peace officers have the power to enter and inspect any business or private dwelling to ensure compliance, and that preventing a peace officer from entering is an offence.
Churches a source of COVID-19 transmission
Premier Blaine Higgs has said churches have played a role in the growth of cases provincially. He said that's why the province stepped up restrictions for churches, after initially not doing so.
During Tuesday's briefing, Shephard said she couldn't be specific about how many of the province's cases are related to faith-based gatherings.
"But what I can say is that we do know that there was a significant number in the month of September that came from church gatherings," although she said the same could be said of any gathering.
At a briefing last month, Public Health epidemiologist Mathieu Chalifoux said about 10 per cent of a "network" of 700 COVID-19 cases in New Brunswick in September were "related to worship-type events."
Shephard said the vast majority of churches have complied with the rules, some even choosing to hold virtual gatherings.
"I am deeply appreciative that nearly every religious leader and faith community in New Brunswick is doing the right thing by keeping their community and their province safe," said Shephard.
"They are requiring proof of vaccination or having smaller, distanced mass gatherings, or they are taking their celebrations online temporarily. These are tough decisions but necessary ones, and I appreciate the leadership that is being shown."
A Sunday evening post by the pastor of His Tabernacle Family Church, meanwhile, seems to indicate that they found a way around the province's rules.
"WE HAD A PACKED SERVICE TONIGHT & IT WAS POWERFUL!!! But I forgot to tell Public Safety that we changed locations … #TheKingdomAlwaysWins."
What the law says
The Emergency Measures Act gives the province the power to authorize such searches in an attempt to ensure compliance with the law, said Kerri Froc, an associate law professor at the University of New Brunswick.
She said "the minister can authorize any person properly identified as authorized to enter any building or on any land without warning."
"And if you obstruct any person in doing so, or they fail to comply with an emergency order, they can be subject to being charged with a provincial offence and there's some fines involved," explained Froc.
She said there are a number of considerations, including whether the Emergency Order is constitutional, because ordinarily, a peace officer would need a warrant in order to enter and search.
Examining all of those issues, and the manner in which the officers entered, Froc says the church has no legal basis to argue against the province's actions.
She said the incident did not violate the Charter of Rights or New Brunswick's laws.
"It's compliant with the statute, it's compliant with the order. So I don't think that the church here has any leg to stand on," said Froc.