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New Brunswick pastor apologizes after week in jail over COVID-19 rule breaches

·3 min read

SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A New Brunswick pastor is free after spending a week in jail and apologizing to the courts Friday for breaches of COVID-19 public health rules.

Philip James Hutchings, the pastor of His Tabernacle Family Church in Saint John, repeatedly apologized in the Court of Queen's Bench and agreed to sign an undertaking stating he understands the health rules and will comply.

Hutchings was found in contempt for not abiding by a consent order signed Oct. 8 requiring his congregants to follow health orders such as masking.

Lawyers for the province say Hutchings held a service two days later where people were seen leaving the church without masks, and health officials were barred from entering.

"My apologies your honour," Hutchings said in court Friday in a low voice while wearing a mask. "I intend to comply." Justice Hugh McLellan was quick to point out that Hutchings also said he would comply two weeks earlier but didn't.

The judge went on to detail how Hutchings and members of his congregation were seen leaving the church without masks, and enforcement officers were stopped by security guards and not allowed to enter the church. He noted that Hutchings then went on social media and mocked the provincial inspectors and boasted that he and congregants held a "packed service" at a new location.

"Do you see how that affects your credibility?" the judge asked. Hutchings asked for another chance, noting that every batter gets three strikes.

That prompted McLellan to start listing the pastor's actions in recent weeks, quipping "I'm losing track of how many strikes there are." He asked if Hutchings has considered that he may be misleading people — to which Hutchings apologized again.

The judge said words were not enough and drafted an undertaking for Hutchings to sign to say he understands the provincial rules and will comply with them. New Brunswick public health rules require church congregants to wear masks. The law also requires that congregants either show proof of vaccination or keep socially distanced and that they not sing during services, which can be held at up to 50 per cent capacity.

The judge released a consent order declaring that Hutchings was in contempt of the Oct. 8 order and setting the punishment at seven days imprisonment, which has been served. The pastor had been detained since a court hearing last Friday.

McLellan also wants other officers of the church to be bound by the undertaking and has ordered Hutchings, his wife and two other officers to appear in his courtroom on Oct. 29 to sign a similar consent order.

Hutchings told the court his next few services will be conducted online.

The pastor did not speak with reporters as he left the courthouse or with supporters who waved signs that had images of masks and syringes and read "Be Brave! Do Not Comply with Discriminatory Orders and Mandates." One of the supporters, fellow pastor Ken Gilliard, said he doesn't believe there is a pandemic. "We are preaching freedom," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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