Ontario v. Trinity Bible Chapel, 2022 ONSC 1344
Two Ontario churches, Trinity Bible Chapel and Church of God (Restoration) (the “Churches”), filed a motion to set aside three judicial orders directing compliance with capacity limits set by the province of Ontario on religious gatherings. The Churches argued these restrictions were unconstitutional, citing section 2(a) of the Charter which protects freedom of religion. The Churches argued that limiting the number of people who could attend their religious services interfered with their ability to practice their faith, which required regular in-person participation of all their members in communal prayer, song and ritual.
In response, Ontario admitted that limiting participation in religious gatherings violated section 2(a) of the Charter but argued these restrictions were justifiable under section 1, which states that all rights and freedoms set out in the Charter are subject only to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Ontario submitted that religious gatherings posed greater risk than other in-person activities such as shopping at essential retail stores, which were allowed to continue operating at greater capacity limits. Religious gatherings resulted in crowds of individuals arriving and departing at the same time and congregating for much longer periods of time than retail shoppers. Also, praying out loud or singing in groups posed particular risks of transmission that were not present in other activities.
Ontario argued the restrictions were necessary in the face of an unprecedented public health emergency and were put in place for only brief periods, when both community infection rates and burdens on the public health system were at their highest.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice held the capacity restrictions on religious services were a violation of freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Charter as they affected the Churches’ ability to engage in the activity that is the most essential to their identity: the ability for all congregants to worship together as one.
The Court rejected Ontario’s argument that the Churches could have met this need either through multiple in-person services or virtual gatherings, deferring to the Churches’ insistence that the practice of their faith required the gathering of all congregants in person at the same time and the proposed alternative methods could not meet that need.
The Court found, however, that these restrictions were justified under section 1 of the Charter. The purpose of the restrictions—to prevent illness and death—was a pressing and substantial objective that could justify the infringement.
There was also a clear causal connection between the restrictions and that legitimate objective, particularly given the unique transmission risks related to participation in religious activities such as gathering in groups for prolonged periods and the common practice of communal singing and chanting.
The Court found the restrictions fell within the range of reasonable alternatives based on the scientific evidence available to Ontario at the time they were enacted and they were carefully tailored and modified to infringe upon the freedom of religion as minimally as possible, limited both by duration and region. Finally, the Court found the infringement on religious freedoms posed by the restrictions was outweighed by positive impact the restrictions provided to society as a whole in aiming to reduce infection rates and prevent illness and death.