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Trial begins for 3 Chilliwack church pastors fighting COVID gathering restriction tickets

Defence lawyer to argue the prohibition was ‘an egregious interference with the freedom of religion’
Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend Sunday Service in Chilliwack on Sunday, February 21, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

The lawyer defending three Chilliwack pastors charged with violating pandemic gathering restrictions in 2020 started Thursday (Aug. 11) by asking to get a ticket quashed on a technicality before he moves to big-picture Charter arguments.

Pastors John Koopman, James Butler and Timothy Champ – of Chilliwack Free Reformed Church, Free Grace Baptist Church, and Valley Heights Community Church respectively – each faced more than a dozen violation tickets for incidents in December 2020 and January 2021

In May 2022, however, Crown dropped 24 of the COVID violation tickets totalling $55,200 in fines against the thee pastors. They still face several more fines each.

READ MORE: Crown drops COVID charges against Chilliwack pastors accused of violating public health orders

The churches held services despite orders banning in-person church services as far back as November 2020. It was Dec. 6 and 13 of that year when Chilliwack RCMP members responded to complaints of groups gathering at the three churches.

From the start, the three made it clear they would not be paying the fines willingly, and would be fighting them in court.

The court hearing began Aug. 11 with defence lawyer Paul Jaffe asking the court to quash one of the $2,300 tickets issued to Koopman.

Jaffe said the handwritten ticket was “indecipherable” and referred to sections of statutes that don’t exist.

In an oral decision issued Friday, Judge Andrea Ormiston declined to quash the ticket. She agreed the way it was filled out was “not ideal,” but decided the essential question is whether the accused is treated fairly, not that he have the most favourable case possible.

“There is no risk of injustice to the accused in proceeding on this violation ticket,” Ormiston said, adding that recent jurisprudence has moved away from “quashing tickets on technicalities.”

Immediately after that decision, the trial proper began with the Crown’s case, which started with RCMP Cpl. Ryan Dauphinee, the officer who issued the ticket after using surveillance to learn the illegal gatherings were taking place.

Cpl. Dauphinee finished testifying at the end of the day on Friday. The trial continues Monday (Aug. 15), when defence will make the case that the law itself against church services is a violation of the Charter.

As Ormiston summed it up based on applications filed, Jaffe will argue “the prohibition is an egregious interference with the freedom of religion.”

Jaffe is a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), the Alberta-based organization defending the pastors.

JCCF spokesperson have said that the province “discriminated against houses of worship” by way of the public health orders.

“Twenty-five people could attend an indoor workout class, 50 people could go to a support group, but not even five people were permitted to gather for religious worship in a church, masjid, gurdwara, temple or synagogue under the provincial health orders,” JCCF lawyer Marty Moore said. “The Justice Centre is committed to defending the constitutional freedoms of all Canadians, including their freedom to worship and right to equal treatment under the law.”

READ MORE: Two Chilliwack churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

READ MORE: Group behind church court challenges hired private investigator to follow Manitoba judge

READ MORE: Judge dismisses charter application of pastor on trial for violating health orders

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