A provincial court judge has levied an $80,000 fine against an Edmonton church and its pastor for violating public health restrictions three times in 2021.
Tracy Fortin, pastor of Church in the Vine, refused to allow a public health inspector inside during Sunday services held on March 7, March 14 and June 5.
The inspector wanted to check on masks and social distancing but Fortin repeatedly turned the inspector away at the door.
“These were deliberate and intentional acts,” Judge Shelagh Creagh said in a written decision issued Wednesday.
Two months ago, Fortin and the church, located at 12345 149th St., were found guilty on six counts of obstructing a public health officer.
“These offences are very serious,” Creagh said. “Laws dealing with public health are of fundamental importance.”
The judge referred to the state of Alberta’s pandemic situation at the time of the offences and noted that Fortin bears a high degree of responsibility.
“Albertans were dying from COVID and our hospitals were challenged to accommodate and treat the sick,” the judge wrote.
“Major surgeries were postponed and treatments for other illnesses were postponed. Long-term effects of the disease and the delay in other surgeries are still being identified.”
The judge noted that the spread of COVID-19 within the community at large was a potential effect of the offence.
“Rumour and hearsay says one congregant had COVID, but that is not proven so I cannot consider it,” Creagh wrote.
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The lawyer representing the church and its pastor disagreed with the judge’s reasoning.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Church in the Vine questions or rejects that narrative,” James Kitchen told CBC News. “The judge obviously subscribes to a very standard narrative view of COVID.”
The lawyer said the judge’s sentencing decision disappointed his clients.
“You know, they weren’t shocked or dismayed or surprised,” Kitchen said. “From their perspective, and from the perspective of those who would agree with them, this is really a travesty that this type of thing is happening.”
Kitchen also thinks the $80,000 fine is too high.
The Crown had asked for up to $120,000 in fines, while Kitchen suggested $12,000.
“Whether it’s eight thousand or 80 thousand … the idea that we’re paying fines for this is a travesty for them and those who agree with them,” Kitchen said. “Obviously it’s a lot of money for them.”
The judge has given them until the end of August to pay the fines or face civil forfeiture. She noted that the only way Fortin and the church can pay the fines is through donations.
A GiveSendGo fund established to raise money toward the fine has collected $3,460 to date.
Kitchen plans to file a notice of appeal next week that will argue there was a freedom of religion Charter breach during the trial. He wants the Court of Queen’s Bench to order a new trial and will ask for the fine payment to be put on hold while he seeks appeal.