Orthodox Rabbis Threaten Legal Action Over Size of Prayer Groups

By STEVE ARNOLD

Some Orthodox rabbis in Toronto are threatening legal action under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against the provincial government’s restrictions on the size of religious services.

Working with the Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the rabbis say COVID-inspired limits on the size of gatherings infringe on their rights to gather in groups.

minyan covid jewish
Illustration by Irv Osterer

Orthodox Jews pray daily in minyanim – quorums of at least 10 adult males. Current rules restrict gatherings, including for religious services, to no more than five people. Violations can bring fines of up to $100,000 and a year in jail.

Ontario’s government “has refused to provide any guidelines for the reopening of houses of worship, other than drive-in services which are of no benefit to Orthodox communities,” Justice Centre lawyer Lisa Bildy told the CJR in an e-mail exchange.

“As more businesses, parks and other institutions begin to open up, there is no reason houses of worship should remain under tight lockdown,” she added.

Last month, hundreds of pastors and other religious leaders signed a letter to Premier Doug Ford asking for changes to the rules for religious groups.

On May 22, four Toronto rabbis followed up with their own letter addressing the specific ways in which Orthodox Jews are affected by the rules. The four signatories were Rabbi Shlomo Miller, head of Kollel Toronto; Rabbi Mordechai Ochs, head of Toronto’s beit din; Rabbi Dovid Shochet, chief justice of the Vaad Harabonim of Toronto; and Rabbi Y.Y. Sofer of the “Chassidic Community of Toronto.”

The letter, which is on the letterhead of the Vaad Harobonim, the umbrella for Toronto Orthodox rabbis, called provincial restrictions an “unjustified limitation imposed on our constitutional right to assemble and to practice our faith. Our G-d given rights and traditions of communal prayer spanning thousands of years are guaranteed by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms not to be unjustifiably infringed.

“We have watched as you have unilaterally and arbitrarily declared faith groups to be shuttered as ‘non-essential,’ while liquor stores, grocery stores, and marijuana shops remained open,” the letter goes on. “There is no constitutional right to buy liquor and marijuana, but there is a constitutional right to worship and to assemble to practice one’s faith…People are permitted to gather at golf courses, beaches and stores in numbers greater than five, but not in prayer. This is unacceptable.”

So-called “drive-in” religious services, which the government has permitted, is of “no benefit” to observant Jews, who may not drive on Shabbat and holy days, the letter states.

The Vaad said it has consulted with legal counsel and has been advised that the Charter of Rights “is the supreme law of the land [which] protects the fundamental rights of religion, association and assembly. Those rights have been infringed, and it has become apparent that the infringements are no longer justified.”

Asked about the reasons for the rabbis’ action, Rabbi Shochet told the CJR: “It’s very simple. You cannot be stricter on allowing religious services than a sports event and other things. You cannot have two standards.”

With Ontario’s restrictions being eased in some quarters, the Centre agrees there is no justification for continuing to ban Orthodox gatherings.

“These discriminatory restrictions do not appear to be based on scientific or public health standards, and are continuing now into a third month, with no clear end in sight,” the Centre said.

“For many religious communities, coming together to worship is of fundamental importance to their faith, and is no less essential than any commercial activity,” Bildy said.

“With the province increasingly opening up, it is important that faith groups be a part of that process. If stores can have many dozens of people inside and maintain safety, so too can houses of worship,” she added.

She said other jurisdictions in Canada are permitting indoor services with 50 congregants, “but Ontario won’t even allow people to meet outside in groups larger than five, despite mounting and compelling evidence that there is virtually no risk of disease transmission outdoors.”

Bildy said there is no legal or public health basis for treating religious groups differently, “and indeed it is contrary to the Charter to discriminate in this arbitrary manner.”

Court documents in the case are being prepared.

In an e-mailed statement to the CJR, a spokesperson for Ford said Ontario “has not yet been served with any application on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community. As the matter may be before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is a conservative legal advocacy group specializing in Canadian constitutional law, especially the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Based in Calgary, it was founded in 2010 by John Carpay, former Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a former candidate for the federal Reform Party and provincial Wildrose Party.