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Chilliwack pastor found guilty of hosting church service in violation of COVID rules

Rev. John Koopman’s lawyer to make Charter argument that prohibition violated 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

One of the Chilliwack church pastors charged with violating pandemic gathering restrictions in 2020 who fought the ticket was found guilty last week.

But it’s not over yet.

While Judge Andrea Ormiston found Rev. John Koopman guilty of acting contrary to a COVID-19-related measures order in a decision on Nov. 8, a conviction was not entered because Koopman intends to make a Charter challenge of the legislation that made the gathering illegal.

The narrow question Ormiston ruled on after a four-day hearing in August, was did Koopman organize or host the church event on Dec. 6, 2020.

Koopman along with pastors 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.

Rev. John Koopman of Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack who was found guilty of violating COVID-19 orders on religious gatherings. (Screenshot
Rev. John Koopman of Free Reformed Church in Chilliwack who was found guilty of violating COVID-19 orders on religious gatherings. (Screenshot

Each violation comes with a $2,300 fine.

In May 2022, however, Crown dropped 24 of the COVID violation tickets totalling $55,200 in fines against the thee pastors, but several more remained in effect.

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

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

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.

An RCMP officer attended Free Reformed Church on Dec. 6, understanding a service would be held based on information from the church’s website. He counted approximately 39 people leave the building and attend to vehicles in the church parking lot. They were wearing masks and were in small groups.

There was no doubt or debate that a church service took place on Dec. 6. The question was only if Koopman organized or hosted it in violation of the then-new Gathering and Events Order.

Judge Ormiston found that Koopman was indeed a host of the event, despite his arguments to the contrary.

“Given police warnings, I find Pastor Koopman was well aware that worship services were prohibited by the order, and I find that he was in a position in the church to influence others” Ormiston wrote in her decision. “Pastor Koopman’s conscience dictated that he must continue to lead in-person worship services on behalf of the church and encourage others to attend, and in so doing he has violated the order by hosting an event.”

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

A 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.”

While Ormiston found Koopman guilty regarding this ticket, she did not enter a conviction pending his constitutional challenge of the order itself.

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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