SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A New Brunswick pastor is in custody after a court hearing Friday over his alleged breaches of COVID-19 public health rules was adjourned until next week.
The Crown has alleged Philip James Hutchings, the pastor of His Tabernacle Family Church in Saint John, is in contempt of court for not abiding by a consent order signed on Oct. 8 requiring congregants to follow health orders such as masking.
Prosecutors say Hutchings held a service two days later during which health officials observed people entering and leaving the church building without masks, and they say security agents barred officials from entering.
The Crown also alleges Hutchings held a service at a secret location that flouted health orders and that he used social media to promote non-compliance with COVID-19 rules.
The two prosecutors have asked that Hutchings be found in contempt of court and given a jail sentence or a warning that he would be jailed if he breaks any more COVID-19 rules.
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.
A group of about 70 to 80 of Hutchings' supporters were outside the court Friday during the proceedings, some of them singing and praying.
Hutchings has said on social media that the government "has no grounds" to tell his church when and where it should meet. "These tyrannical bullies will be stopped," he wrote on Facebook Wednesday.
David Lutz, the lawyer who represented the landowner in the proceedings, said his client, Saint John Cornerstone Properties, supports the public safety measures applied to the church, which rents the property.
Lutz said Justice Hugh McLellan of the Court of Queen's Bench adjourned the matter until Oct. 22. "In the meantime, pastor Phil has been remanded to the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre. He (the judge) didn't make a finding of contempt yet," Lutz said.
Evangelical churches and the message a small minority of preachers have been providing to congregants regarding public health rules have been making headlines in both Newfoundland and Labrador and in New Brunswick in recent weeks.
In Bishop's Falls, N.L., the First United Pentecostal Church was at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak this month that ultimately involved 56 infections and killed at least one unvaccinated congregant. Premier Andrew Furey responded by convening a meeting of religious leaders, including Pentecostals, to discuss the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine.
In New Brunswick, a Pentecostal church, Amazing Grace, was named as the location of an exposure notification in the northwest of the province on Aug. 29.
Joe Gee, a resident of the nearby town of Carlingford, N.B., said in a recent telephone interview he believes some of his family members were exposed to the virus as a result of its spread in the church, and he wants health officials to investigate what happened. He said his unvaccinated father died as a result of the outbreak.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
— By Michael Tutton in Halifax with files from Global News
The Canadian Press