Winnipeg church seeks court injunction on health ordinance banning religious services while driving

A fight for the right to assemble for worship services during government-imposed pandemic restrictions will be held in a Winnipeg court on Thursday.

Springs Church, which has been fined a total of $ 20,000 for holding four separate drive-through services, is asking for a temporary suspension of the province’s current public health order, which requires the premises to worship are closed to the public.

The order, which is due to expire on December 11, comes with a series of strict conditions, including a ban on the sale of non-essential items in stores and a ban on visitors to private homes.

The health ordinance allows religious leaders to organize and broadcast services live, but does not allow drive-thru services.

“I don’t understand what the problem is,” said Amanda Sheriff, who has attended drive-in services in Springs for the past three months. “You are safe in your car, you do not meet any other [person]. You are just in your car and you pray, you love. ”

The church sheriff usually stops offering in-person meetings and switches to virtual services. But she says in-person worship is a crucial part of her faith, so she began driving services to Springs.

She said she was furious when she saw Winnipeg police first show up outside the church last weekend. In addition to the fines imposed on the church, one practitioner was fined.

Police and provincial law enforcement officers pulled up across the road as hundreds took part in the drive-thru worship service at Springs Church last Saturday night. (Walther Bernal / CBC)

“It’s just outrageous, in my opinion,” she said.

“Right now you can go to Costco. I’ve been to Costco, Walmart – those lines are ridiculous, let alone when you’re in the store you’re one of those people who don’t really socialize. ”

Springs is not the only church to have been fined under the latest health ordinances.

The Church of God in Sarto, Manitoba, near the town of Steinbach, was fined $ 5,000 and six people were given individual bills of $ 1,296 after the church attempted to organize a big drive-thru last Sunday. They were blocked by RCMP officers, which drove over 100 cars along the highway trying to enter the church parking lot.

More challenges on the way

Springs Church declined a CBC interview request on Wednesday, but posted a video on Facebook. In it, Pastor Leon Fontaine pointed out that under current provincial regulations, people are still allowed in person inside liquor and cannabis stores.

“We have to ask ourselves why the government has deemed it unsafe for Manitobans to drive to their place of worship with their windows rolled up during the entire service,” Fontaine said in the post.

Winnipeg lawyer Allison Pejovic said she was confident a court will overturn the province’s ban on religious services while driving. (CBC)

The Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms is also involved. He has informed Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister that if the province does not change course by the end of Thursday, he will file an injunction.

The Justice Center is an advocacy organization that has been associated with other high-profile cases, such as the struggle of British Columbia-based Trinity Western Christian University to get its students to commit to a code of conduct. strict, including sexual abstinence outside heterosexual marriage. .

Allison Pejovic, a Winnipeg lawyer who works with the Justice Center, is confident that a court will rule the province’s order a Charter violation if Springs fails Thursday.

By allowing people to continue going to stores for essential purposes, the order “already allows people to do basically the same thing” as attending a drive-thru, “but not in a religious setting” , she said.

“So we see it as… we have a very strong case on the drive-thru issue”.

She said the center plans to bring legal challenges against broader government lockdowns in several provinces soon and has been in contact with people who have been fined for attending church.

The premier’s office said it would continue to act on the advice of health experts and said the order was needed to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba, which has one of the worst rates disease per capita in Canada.

“We recognize this is a difficult time, but we need the full participation of all Manitobans to make these public health measures work. [so] we can get back to beating COVID-19, ”Pallister spokesperson Olivia Billson wrote in an email.

The sheriff said she would be back at Springs Church this weekend, although she knows she could get fined. She said she stood with her peers.

“There will be a large part of the Christian community that will rise up, and they will stand up on behalf of Springs Church because it is an injustice. And that’s not fair at all. ”

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