Toronto Church Files Constitutional Challenge Over COVID-19 Restrictions

Toronto Church Files Constitutional Challenge Over COVID-19 Restrictions
A queue forms outside a COVID-19 testing centre in Toronto, on Dec. 9, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)
The Canadian Press

TORONTO—A church in Toronto’s northeast corner has filed a constitutional challenge over Ontario’s COVID-19 health regulations.

The Toronto International Celebration Church says in court documents that it intends to question the constitutional validity of the Reopening Ontario Act.

The notice of application says that the church is challenging the provincial health guideline that limits weddings, funerals, and religious services to 10 or fewer people in regions of Ontario that are under lockdown like Toronto and Peel Region.

Peter Youngren, the founding pastor of the church, says in an online video that the church’s congregation are not COVID-19 deniers and that they have carefully adhered to public health restrictions.

“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 throw its doors wide open while maintaining public health standards,” said Youngren.

He said that his church’s auditorium has capacity for 1,100 people and a maximum attendance of 10 doesn’t seem equitable compared to liquor stores and big-box retailers that are still operating at close to capacity.

“We are deeply concerned about equal treatment under the law,” said Youngren. “We want every business and institution, including churches, to receive unbiased treatment.”

The application argues that lockdown restrictions go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as well as freedom of peaceful assembly.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and former attorney general of Ontario, said he applauded the constitutional challenge.

“The limitation on this charter right has the proportionality of a sledgehammer,” said Bryant.

“This constitutional challenge is much needed to engage the judicial branch in our democracy, so we will seek to be heard by the Court.”

Documents filed to Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice note that before Toronto was moved to a renewed lockdown on Nov. 23 the Toronto International Celebration Church complied with regional guidelines and operated at 30 percent capacity.

The legal documents also say the church ensured congregants wore masks in its building and kept members of different households at least two metres apart.

Given the building’s regular seating capacity, the documents say that the stricter regulation “represents a 99 percent reduction on the number of worshippers who may attend an in-person service at the church.”

Lawyers for the church told the attorneys general of Ontario and Canada in a letter that they will be moving immediately to secure a motion date for an urgent injunction.

Nicko Vavassis, a spokesman for Ontario’s Attorney General, said that the ministry received the notice of application and that it was being reviewed but any further comment would be inappropriate as the matter is before the court.

By John Chidley-Hill