Fine issued as police block Steinbach-area churchgoers from outlawed drive-in service

One person is facing a fine after more than 100 cars sat parked along a rural Manitoba highway Sunday morning, as several RCMP vehicles blocked the entrance to the parking lot for the Church of God's planned drive-in service.

Minister delivers sermon from back of pickup truck parked on the highway

Police watch as a crowd attempts to stop a tow truck from removing a van, which was blocking traffic on the highway, on the way to a drive-in church service at the Church of God south of Steinbach. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

One person is facing a fine after more than 100 cars sat parked along a rural Manitoba highway Sunday morning, while several RCMP vehicles blocked the entrance to the parking lot for the Church of God's planned drive-in service.

Under Manitoba's public health orders, gatherings of more than five people are banned, places of worship have been ordered to close and religious services are only allowed to be attended virtually.

The church in Sarto, Man., planned to have a drive-in service, with its congregation listening on radios with their windows rolled up. Instead, the service was done over a loudspeaker.

"We're proud to stand for religious freedom. We're all one human family and we're made to come together to worship," said minister Tobias Tissen.

"Being alone at home and watching a virtual service does not replace worship."

Minister Tobias Tissen joined a group trying to stop a van from being towed, and led a sermon from the back of a pickup truck. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

People gathered on the road after a tow truck hired by the RCMP attempted to remove a van that was blocking traffic on the highway.

A congregation member stood between the van and the tow truck, and Tissen stopped the service to join and lead the group in prayer.

"This is my father's world and you're big time interfering with God right now," he said.

Tissen finished his sermon and led a prayer from the back of a pickup truck after RCMP called off the tow.

Many who showed up on Sunday are part of the congregation, while others came out from Winnipeg to show their support.

More fines issued

RCMP say they advised about 125 people at the service of the current public health orders and were given the option of entering the property and being fined or going home.

"Most of the parishioners, but one, understood the message and returned home," said Sgt. Paul Manaigre of the RCMP in an email Sunday.

A man told RCMP he wanted to continue on and was given a $1,296 fine.

"Violating public health orders is an offence. These orders are in place for everyone's safety. All citizens of Manitoba are directed not to congregate, and those directions supersede all other acts at this time. Please stay safe and stay home," Manaigre said.

Last Sunday, the same church — located in the rural municipality of Hanover, south of Steinbach and 60 kilometres from Winnipeg — was fined $5,000 for holding an in-person service that RCMP previously said more than 100 people attended.

Tissen was also fined a total of nearly $2,600 for being at that service and attending an earlier protest against COVID-19 restrictions in the area. Tissen said after the most recent Sunday service that he was not fined.

Steinbach has seen a jump in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. Just over a week ago, Manitoba's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the southern Manitoba health district had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 40 per cent, which Premier Brian Pallister later said was the highest rate in Canada.

WATCH | Churchgoers near Steinbach met with police blockade:

Churchgoers near Steinbach met with police blockade

1 year ago
Duration 1:36
More than 100 cars sat along a rural Manitoba highway as RCMP blocked the entrance to the parking lot for the Church of God’s planned drive-thru service. 1:36

A spokesperson for the province could not confirm on Sunday whether any tickets were handed out to those who showed up to attend the service, and said more information will likely be available on Tuesday in a weekly COVID-19 enforcement report.

Roussin previously said the government has a number of tools it can use to enforce public health orders.

"If somebody was undertaking activity that we felt put the health of the public at risk, we could issue a health hazard order that would require an organization to close," he said. 

"There could be continued fines, there could be prosecution under the Public Health Act."

The Church of God has held similar services that break public health orders in other regions.

Weekend services at Springs Church

Meanwhile, a church in Winnipeg saw hundreds pack its parking lot for a drive-in service on Saturday night.

Police cruisers and provincial enforcement officers sat parked across the street from Springs Church on Lagimodiere Boulevard as the mega church broke the same public health order as the church near Steinbach.

That church held another drive-in service on Sunday morning.

Springs Church on Lagimodiere Boulevard held another drive-in service on Sunday in contravention of the province's current public health orders. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

In a video statement posted on the Springs Church Facebook page before this weekend's services, senior pastor Leon Fontaine said everyone who attended would be watching the service from their car and that there would be no bathrooms available on site.

Fontaine said it was important to continue offering the service, especially for people struggling with mental health or addiction issues.

"It's all for nothing if you and I don't have freedom," Fontaine said.

Updates on whether any fines were issued at that service are also expected on Tuesday.

With files from Erin Brohman and Austin Grabish