ST. THOMAS -- As more than 400 protesters prayed, cried and sang outside, a provincial court yesterday denied an Aylmer couple custody of their children for at least three weeks.
The seven children, ages six to 14, were seized last week by Family and Children's Services.
A gag order was put on the decision and the public was not allowed in the courtroom.
But Steve Bailey, executive director of Family and Children's Services of St. Thomas and Elgin, said the ruling was justified.
"Apprehending a child is not a routine experience. It doesn't happen that often," he said. "It happens when corporal punishment crosses a line."
The parents of the children belong to the Aylmer Church of God, which allows members to discipline children with belts, switches, sticks and straps.
"The children should be returned," said the Church of God's pastor, Rev. Henry Hildebrandt, speaking for the parents.
"It is only natural and right that the children belong in their homes under parental guidance."
Church of God supporters came from as far away as California for yesterday's protest.
Kneeling on the front lawn of the courthouse, they sang from hymn books, while small children held signs that read "Anti-abuse, pro-discipline," and "Please return our children."
Other protesters, who weren't members of the church, also waved signs,
demanding the return of the children to their parents.
"This is ridiculous, unbelievable," said Ernie Timmons, one of the protesters. "If you read what the law says, you're allowed to spank your children. I don't say you should pound on them and abuse them, but spank them," he said.
Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada permits parents to spank their children, as long as it doesn't exceed reasonable force.
The next court hearing is scheduled for July 26, but will focus on procedural issues, said the father's lawyer, Michael Menear.
Later court hearings will deal with where the children should be held until the final hearing, Menear said.
That hearing should begin within the next several months, he said.
The parents have been granted visitation rights, but Menear couldn't say how often the visits would be or whether they'd be supervised.
By that time, everyone will have learned that the father of these children is a "great man," said a friend of the father.
"He is a man who would never harm or hurt anybody. He's the kindest, the sweetest, the softest father there is," Peter Thiessen said. "I can guarantee, there's going to be a lot bigger turnout next time around."
WHAT THEY SAID
- "Apprehending a child is not a routine experience." Steve Bailey, Family and Children's Services, St. Thomas-Elgin
- "The children should be returned." Rev. Henry Hildebrandt, Aylmer pastor
- "We're coming back in two weeks." Michael Menear, lawyer for father of seized children