HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia court has fined a church in the Annapolis Valley $5,000 for violating provincial restrictions on faith gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Weston Christian Fellowship Church in Berwick, N.S., held a service on May 9, 2021, with more than the permitted number of participants, according to the agreed statement of facts in the case.
Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health had prohibited faith gatherings of more than five people from April 29, 2021, to June 4, 2021.
In a provincial court hearing Tuesday in Windsor, N.S., Judge Angela Caseley found the church guilty and accepted the $5,000 fine agreed to by the Crown and the defence counsel.
The summary offence ticket the RCMP originally handed the church amounted to $10,000 plus the victim surcharge and court fees, but Crown attorney Alex Keaveny told the judge there was now a joint recommendation for a fine of $5,000.
“This violation of the order was a serious one,” Keaveny said. “We submit that a lesser fine … sends the message that these orders must be obeyed, but at the same time it’s not overly harsh, and we submit it’s a fit sentence for your honour’s consideration.”
Keaveny said the Crown had no issue with waiving the surcharges.
Defence lawyer Gayle Karding told the court the waiving of the surcharges would be an appropriate move given the size of the church.
“It’s a small body of believers, it’s certainly not a lucrative proposition,” said Karding. “The church doesn’t have a lot of money, so $5,000 is quite a meaningful sum of money for them.”
The agreed statement of facts was signed by church elders Marty Elson, Jonathan Meadows and Michael Slauenwhite.
Slauenwhite told the court that his church faced rules and regulations from the province that caused “confusion, uncertainty and instability.”
“It was at this time that we found ourselves with a choice to make, to obey God or to obey government,” he said. “In the haste to implement widespread restrictions we felt our government and health authority acted beyond their authority.”
But in her ruling for the agreed fine, Caseley made it clear that orders like the gathering restriction "need to be followed."
“It is a small church as I understand, not one that is significantly wealthy, so a $5,000 fine will have significant meaning to this congregation,” the judge said. “I will waive the victim client surcharge in this particular case.”
The church was given until Jan. 30, 2025, to pay the fine.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press