Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) on Thursday urged the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to consider adding Canada to its watch list after several pastors have been jailed in the country for keeping their churches open.
“I am troubled that our Canadian neighbors are effectively being forced to gather in secret, undisclosed locations to exercise their basic freedom to worship,” Hawley wrote in a letter (full text below) to USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza and the Ambassador of Canada to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman.
“Frankly, I would expect this sort of religious crackdown in Communist China, not in a prominent Western nation like Canada. Canadian authorities’ arrest of faith leaders and seizure of church property, among other enforcement actions, appear to constitute systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” Hawley continued.
Hawley singled out the case of Pastor Tim Stephens, who awaits his June 28 trial at the maximum-security Calgary Remand Centre, which made headlines for reportedly triple-bunking inmates despite outbreaks of COVID-19 at the facility. As The Daily Wire reported, Stephens was arrested June 14 for the second time after a police helicopter found where members of his Fairview Baptist Church were secretly gathering outdoors. The congregation had been forced out of their building after authorities locked it.
Hawley also mentioned Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church, who drew international attention earlier this year when he was imprisoned for more than a month in the maximum-security Edmonton Remand Centre. After he was released, Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raided his church facility at dawn, locked it, and barricaded it behind three layers of fencing. Coates’ congregation has since been forced underground and meets in an undisclosed location.
“Unfortunately, Senator Hawley is correct,” Jay Cameron told The Daily Wire, who is the litigation director at the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented both Stephens and Coates in court. “Canada’s escalating aggression toward religious freedom calls for international scrutiny.” He went on to say that both federally and provincially, Canada “has abandoned the plain written text of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that Canada’s first fundamental individual right is freedom of conscience and religion.”
“Along with increasing shifts away from freedom and democracy toward authoritarian government, Canada has seen marked incidents of aggression toward freedom of religion,” Cameron continued. “For example, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms represents pastors who have been imprisoned under Premier Jason Kenney’s government in Alberta for gathering peacefully in the exercise of their faith. These churches are gathering in secret because their churches have been seized and barricaded by government; they are forced to change the location of their meetings because ‘health’ officials actively hunt them to punish them with heavy fines, arrest, and incarceration.”
Cameron said Stephens is in jail because he and his congregation chose to exercise their rights “instead of bowing the knee to oppressive, tyrannical, and arbitrary health orders that politicians sneak around and themselves do not follow.” He also mentioned the case of Pastor Henry Hildebrandt and his Church of God in Aylmer, Ontario, which faces more than $270,000 in fines and legal fees. Hildebrandt recently spoke to The Daily Wire about the ordeals his church is facing.
Read the full text of Hawley’s letter below:
Dear Chair Maenza:
One of the most fundamental human rights is the freedom to practice one’s faith according to the dictates of one’s conscience. Last year, I urged the Department of Justice to bring federal lawsuits to uphold the rights of houses of worship burdened by unjust restrictions. Now I am writing to express my deep concern that this freedom is in peril across our nation’s northern border.
In recent months, there have been numerous instances of Canadian pastors being arrested and jailed for holding worship services that do not comply with COVID-19 restrictions. On June 14, Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, who was previously arrested in May, was arrested again at home in front of his wife and children. Media outlets captured heartbreaking video of the pastor’s children sobbing as they held their father’s hand through the barred window of a police car. Pastor Stephens’ alleged violation was holding an outdoor worship service in a park, which was apparently discovered by a police helicopter flying overhead.
Other Canadian pastors, such as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, have similarly faced arrests and enforcement actions. Authorities reportedly seized and fenced off the GraceLife Church building in April, which sparked a protest of hundreds of people in opposition to the move.
I am troubled that our Canadian neighbors are effectively being forced to gather in secret, undisclosed locations to exercise their basic freedom to worship. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that “[e]veryone has the following fundamental freedoms,” which include the “freedom of conscience and religion.” The arrests and actions taken to enforce overly burdensome and unjustified orders, however, do not seem to live up to this praiseworthy statement. Frankly, I would expect this sort of religious crackdown in Communist China, not in a prominent Western nation like Canada.
Canadian authorities’ arrest of faith leaders and seizure of church property, among other enforcement actions, appear to constitute systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. I urge the Commission on International Religious Freedom to take whatever action is necessary to address and rectify this situation, and consider adding Canada to the Commission’s Watch List.
Thank you for your attention to this pressing matter.
United States Senator