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Judge finds B.C. pastor 'liable' for hosting COVID gatherings

The judge did not enter a conviction against the Chilliwack pastor.
A stock image of a church pew.

A Chilliwack provincial court judge has found a local pastor "liable" for holding a Dec. 6, 2020 COVID-era church gathering in contravention of public health orders.

However, Judge Andrea Ormiston did not enter a conviction against John Koopman of the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack. 

The judge said there was no doubt an in-person gathering occurred at the church on that date. It was also clear Koopman was there, she said in the Nov. 8 decision, posted online Nov. 17.

Ormiston said the Crown had proven the event was a worship service, which had been forbidden as a form of gathering under provincial orders designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"However, given the legislation was in its infancy and rapidly changing, I note for the sake of clarity that there can be no question that prohibited events included 'worship and other religious services.'" 

The case revolves around provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s Dec. 4, 2020 order, which prohibited people from organizing or hosting a long list of events. That list included in-person worship services. 

The event Ormiston had to address happened two days after the order was issued.

Ormiston said Koopman described how services were organized during the pandemic, including hygiene measures, limited invitations to attend, and seating arrangements. 

He said he was not the person responsible for the organizational tasks.

That left Ormiston with one question to answer: was Koopman the host of the event?

She found that a host does not necessarily deal with the logistical aspects of an event.

“A host in some way provides for the comfort and well-being of their guests even if they do not involve themselves with making the necessary arrangements,” the judge said in her ruling.

She said he may not have been the only host but he was one of them.

“I find Pastor Koopman was well aware that worship services were prohibited by the order, and I find that he was in a position in the church to influence others,” the judge said.

Creston charges dropped

On Nov. 16, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) said B.C. had dropped similar charges against Creston’s Pastor David Ripley.

The JCCF said Ripley had been fined $2,300 for allegedly violating the health order by having a service on Jan. 3, 2021.

It said Ripley opened up the church on Sundays, roped off pews for physical distancing and complied with the public health guidance. The centre said the gatherings involved no singing or preaching, only prayer and scriptural reading.

“The unjustified intrusions of government into the homes and churches of Canadians in the name of COVID enforcement is a stain on Canada’s free and democratic society,” JCCF lawyer Marty Moore said. “Pastor Ripley was attempting to follow public health orders and serve the needs of his congregation. There was no justification for forcing him through nearly two years of court appearances and legal processes. He is relieved to have this behind him.”

Other charges dropped in May

In May, B.C. prosecutors dropped 24 charges against pastors and churches that allegedly violated COVID health order restrictions on public gatherings in late 2020 and 2021.

Koopman, Pastor James Butler of Free Grace Baptist Church and Pastor Timothy Champ of Valley Heights Community Church, participated in worship services with stringent safety protocols in place beginning in November 2020.

“In response to COVID, there has been a serious failure of government officials and authorities in B.C. to respect the charter freedoms of B.C. residents,” Moore said.

The centre said Koopman was facing charges on 23 tickets totalling $52,900, Butler on 25 tickets totalling $57,500, and Champ on 18 tickets totalling $41,400.

On May 4 and 6, seven tickets against Koopman, 11 against Butler and six against Champ were dropped.

However, said the centre, 20 tickets issued against pastors and Fraser Valley churches remain outstanding. 

The JCCF has pledged to “vigorously defend pastors and churches against these charges in future appearances in provincial court.”

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