Manitoba

'Churches don't make health policy,' Pallister says in face of petition for full-capacity service

Some churches in Manitoba are banding together to ask the province to lift all COVID-19-related restrictions that limit how they can worship. 

Close to 50 churches have signed on to online petition, arguing they should be allowed to make their own rules

Some Manitoba churches want the province to remove all limits imposed on places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they should be allowed to make their own decisions. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Dozens of churches in Manitoba are banding together to ask the province to lift all COVID-19-related restrictions that limit how they can worship. 

The current guidelines limit public gatherings to 25 people indoors, and 50 people outdoors. 

That will double next week, when Phase 3 of Manitoba's reopening strategy begins. 

Still, some church leaders believe they should be able to set their own restrictions and have created a website called Reopen Manitoba Churches to lobby the provincial government. 

A letter posted to the website that is addressed to Premier Brian Pallister says the churches feel the restrictions are unjustified, given the province's low case numbers, and that they infringe upon their Charter rights. 

"The free assembly of the church is not incidental to Christian worship but is an essential component of our worship. It is not the role of the state to determine that online resources substitute as a peaceful assembly," the letter says. 

"The church exists by the authority of Jesus Christ himself and not by the authority of the civil government."

The petition originated with four churches: Cornerstone Bible Church in Steinbach, Grace Covenant Church in Altona, Grace Life Church in Beausejour, and Redeeming Grace Bible Church in Morden. 

As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 50 churches had signed on with the lobbying group, while about 1,400 people had signed the online petition. 

I'm going to ask the church organizations to have a little faith.- Premier Brian Pallister

Asked about the petition, Pallister said public health advisories should be followed in all cases, and asked them to respect the health orders set forth by Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public heath officer. 

"I'm going to ask the church organizations to have a little faith. We've liberalized our rules and deregulated faster than almost every jurisdiction in the country. I'm sure there's something biblical or in the Koran about patience, and I would expect we need to have a little patience now," he said.

"Churches won't make health policy, Dr. Roussin and our health experts are making that health policy, and they have good reason for being careful about the restrictions that are necessary to keep us all safe. And I think it would be in the best interests of all of us to show respect for that."

But Pastor Riley Toews with Grace Covenant Church in Altona, one of the organizers of the petition, says he thinks church is essential to a lot of people, and that the provincial government should trust church leaders to keep their members safe. 

"The last thing that we want to do is make our people sick. We definitely want to care for the elderly and the vulnerable among us," he said. 

"We would be confident that churches would take all the relevant data into consideration in trying to make the best decisions for themselves and their congregations."

He said his church has been doing its best to stay connected with people but it's been very hard on the congregation. 

"The connection and the fellowship is something that you really miss," he said. 

"We're doing our best to stay connected in the ways that we can and those have been very, very positive, but it's definitely been a challenge." 

Toews said the group plans to send their letter to Pallister at the end of the week, after allowing people more time to sign the attached petition.

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