MONTREAL— A Quebec judge said she will decide before this Shabbat, Feb. 5, whether to grant Hasidic communities the exemption they seek from the province’s restriction on gatherings in places of worship.
The Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec, which claims to represent 5,000 families, argues that the limit of 10 people at a time at religious services per building is a “serious hindrance” to members of the Hasidic communities’ freedom of religion.
The request for an injunction was heard on Feb. 1 via videoconference by Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse, who said she would decide by Thursday or Friday morning at the latest.
“The imposition of a maximum of 10 or 25 people being able to be present in a place of worship situated in the red zone constitutes a serious hindrance to the freedom of religion of believers of all faiths and in particular to the members of the Hasidic Jewish community,” the request states.
The council’s lawyer Sylvain Lacroix said communal prayer is central to Hasidic practice and obligatory on a daily basis. He said the communities’ synagogues are observing the protocols of social distancing and mask wearing, and there is no proof that gatherings at places of worship are a source of coronavirus spread.
He said there are about 40 Hasidic places of worship in the Montreal region, with membership ranging from 50 to 500 families.
On Jan. 28, council spokesperson Max Lieberman announced that, “Having exhausted all other means to obtain from governmental authorities a modification to permit members of our communities the ability to pray in a secure environment, the communities are turning to the courts in order to have their fundamental rights respected.”
Shabbat of Jan. 29-30 passed without incident at Hasidic synagogues, amid heavy police presence, in contrast to the week before when police intervened at a dozen places of worship in the Outremont and Plateau Mont Royal boroughs where too many people were inside. About 225 notices of offence were issued for violation of the province’s COVID-19 containment rules, which limit gatherings in places of worship to 10 people at a time.
The Council stated afterward that the synagogues that admitted more people acted “in good faith” because they thought a Jan. 21 ministerial decree easing restrictions on places of worship would be applied the same way as an earlier decision, enacted before a lockdown went into effect on Jan. 9.
From Oct. 1, when the Montreal region went into the highest-alert red zone, places of worship were restricted to a maximum of 25 people. But if the building had rooms with separate entrances to the exterior and were not contiguous with other areas of the building, 25 could be accommodated in each of those rooms simultaneously.
The Jan. 21 decree is silent on any such provision and even public health department officials at first seemed confused and issued contradictory messages until Premier Francois Legault confirmed on Jan. 26 that the rule is 10 people per building, not room.
The Inter-Religious Round Table, a group formed at the start of the pandemic that acts as a liaison between faith communities and the government, had asked for an easing of the total ban on religious gatherings and the decree was a concession to that. The Hasidic community has representation on that group, which is not seeking any further loosening of the rules at this time.
The Jewish Community Council of Montreal, which lists some 80 Hasidic and other haredi shuls and religious entities as associates, also is not backing the demand for an exemption and denounced the clashes over Shabbat of Jan. 22-23.
“While we appreciate that the vast majority of our synagogues complied with the new regulations, we are extremely disappointed and frustrated that some have ignored them and there were incidents involving the police.”