Hasidic communities are again turning to the courts to challenge Quebec COVID containment measures that they say hinder their religious freedom.
On March 12, the Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec filed a demand for an exemption from the province’s nighttime curfew because the return to daylight- saving time means its members will not have completed their prayers in time to return home by the start of the 8 p.m. curfew.
Vice-president Max Lieberman said in a statement that the Council tried to persuade the government to modify the rules and, when that failed, felt it had no choice but to take legal action.
The Council argues that the religious rights of observant Jews will be infringed upon starting March 14, when the clocks move forward one hour, if they have to strictly obey the curfew.
Orthodox Jews, it stresses, can only commence evening prayers after nightfall and, according to age-old Hasidic tradition, that occurs 72 minutes after sunset. The curfew, which runs until 5 a.m., has been in force since Jan. 9 to curb what was then a rapidly increasing number of COVID cases.
Shabbat candle lighting time in Montreal on March 19 is 6:48 p.m.; it was 5:38 p.m. on March 12. Hasidic Jews also customarily pray daily in synagogue.
“The lack of flexibility by the authorities will oblige the faithful to choose between practising their religion or respecting the curfew,” stated Lieberman. The Council claims to represent 5,000 families.
The Montreal region and surrounding areas remain in the red zone, while outlying regions were recently downgraded to orange and now have a 9:30 p.m. curfew.
In February, the Council was successful in its legal challenge to another public health regulation. Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse ruled that, due to a lack of clarity in the latest measures, places of worship of all faiths are permitted to admit up to 10 people at a time, not only in their building as a whole, but in each of any rooms that have an entrance to the outside and are not contiguous with other interior spaces.
That had been the case since October when Montreal and other regions went on the highest alert, except that at that point the maximum had been 25 people. On Jan. 9, the government banned gatherings of any size in places of worship, except for funerals.
Under pressure from religious groups, including Hasidim who threatened legal action, that measure was eased by ministerial order on Jan. 21 and up to 10 were allowed. However, the decree made no reference to the separate-room loophole and, after much confusion ensued, Premier Francois Legault insisted that it meant 10 people per address, not room.
The government did not appeal Masse’s Feb. 5 judgment.
On March 12, the government announced another easing of restrictions on places of worship in red zones. As of March 26, in time for Passover, they will be permitted to admit 25 people, respecting social distance and other public health protocols. Those in orange zones are currently able to welcome up to 100.
The interdenominational Montreal Board of Rabbis continues to urge the Jewish community to respect all public health rules.
The Interreligious Roundtable, formed at the start of the pandemic to act as a liaison between faith communities and the government and which includes Jewish representation, distanced itself from the Hasidic Council’s lawsuit.
“We are deeply committed to a process of dialogue and consultation with public health authorities and the government for the management of health measures concerning places of worship,” the Roundtable said in a statement.
However, several churches and Christian leaders have questioned why places of worship are still so restricted when movie theatres were reopened on Feb. 26 and can accommodate as many as 250 people.