The Department of Justice and Public Safety says it's "looking into" an outdoor service held by His Tabernacle Family Church – the Saint John church that infamously flouted the province's mandatory COVID-19 rules this fall.
On Nov. 29, Philip Hutchings, the church's lead pastor who, in October, admitted he was in contempt of court for flouting a consent order after spending seven days in custody, posted pictures on his personal Facebook page of churchgoers worshipping in a tent at a location in the city.
The photos appear to show that COVID rules, such as social distancing and mask wearing, weren't being followed.
While Department of Justice and Public Safety spokesperson Geoffrey Downey didn't address whether the service violated the province's mandatory order, he did say in an email the department is "looking into Sunday’s gathering."
Downey said as part of a court undertaking, officials with the church must inform the department of planned religious services.
"The church has informed the department of services," he wrote. "Officers have been conducting spot checks to observe compliance with COVID regulations."
The Telegraph-Journal sought clarity on what the department was looking into and Downey reiterated in a follow-up email that it was looking into this particular service.
Under the province's mandatory order, faith venues have two options: require proof of vaccination, or, if not, hold church services at 50 per cent or less capacity, with physical distancing and contact tracing lists in place, as well as prohibit singing. With either option, masks are mandatory.
The Telegraph-Journal contacted Florenceville-Bristol lawyer, Jonathan Martin, who is representing Hutchings. In an email, Martin said the COVID-19 rule the church must follow for outdoor events, such as the one held on Sunday, is two-metre physical distancing.
Martin said Hutchings declined to comment further.
The church's recent outdoor gatherings come weeks after the pastor was released from jail on Oct. 22 after admitting to contempt of court for violating an Oct. 8 consent order that he would make all reasonable efforts to ensure his church was complying with COVID-19 rules.
Hutchings signed a new consent order on Oct. 22. He has agreed to allow peace officers access to the church's services to ensure compliance on COVID-19 rules. He must inform the Department of Justice and Public Safety, at least 24 hours in advance, if the gatherings are held anywhere other than 348 Rockland Rd.
The pastor also promised not to encourage the harassment of public or government officials.
In a 40-minute Facebook live video from Nov. 21, Hutchings, who was sporting a white toque that reads, "The Stand Canada," reached out to people who were kicked out of their churches because of their vaccine status.
"They're idiots," he said of churches enforcing proof of vaccination toward the end of the video.
He encouraged unvaccinated people to contact His Tabernacle Family Church and added those in the Saint John area could attend their "open-air crusades."
"We were packed today outside – in the rain," he said.
On Thursday, Hutchings and Keith Douglas Cody Butler, 34, of Rivershore Drive, who is a church director, appeared in court to enter pleas on tickets issued under the Emergency Measures Act.
- With files from Mike Landry
Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal