Winnipeg's Springs Church offers members 'religious exemptions' for COVID-19 vaccination
Evangelical church's pastors promise documentation to congregants who don't want to be vaccinated
The pastors at an evangelical church in Winnipeg have told their congregation they will provide documentation providing "religious exemptions" to those who want to avoid mandated COVID-19 vaccines.
"With the vaccine mandate deadlines fast approaching, as a church, we have made the decision to provide religious exemptions to our attenders if they think that may help them with their employment," Springs Church pastors Leon and Sally Fontaine wrote in an email to church members earlier this week.
The email invites members to email for more information, and links the offer of exemptions to a human rights issue.
"We continue to believe that the overreach our government is taking with our freedoms will be challenged and come to an end," the pastors wrote.
Many employers — including both the province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg — have implemented vaccine requirements for some employees.
At a Friday news conference, City of Winnipeg chief administrative officer Michael Jack said the city has not given out any exemptions so far to its requirement of vaccination or testing for some front-line employees, but is considering exemption requests.
Exemptions for city employees on religious grounds are unlikely, though — Jack said the city's legal team has not been able to identify a religion that would make someone ineligible for vaccination.
The province of Manitoba is unequivocal about exemptions for its employees.
"Under the current public health orders, there is no exemption for religious reasons for those eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination. At this time, public health is only permitting a medical exemption under very specific circumstances," wrote a spokesperson for Manitoba Health.
The Springs Church pastors acknowledge an exemption may not hold much sway with an employer.
"We want to remind you that these religious exemptions may not apply to all employee situations or be accepted by all employers," their email said.
Springs Church did not respond to requests for an interview on Friday.
Past conflict on health orders
The church has faced scrutiny throughout the pandemic for its position on health orders.
The church — which also operates a private school with two locations — was charged earlier this year with violating COVID-19-related public health orders, after photos circulated of a graduation ceremony at the church with a group of people not wearing masks.
The church also filed an unsuccessful court application late last year for an interim stay of the provincial public health order that prohibited in-person religious gatherings at that time.
At that point, Springs Church and two of its pastors had been fined more than $32,000 for allowing services in contravention of the public health order.
In this school year, the schools linked to Springs Church have faced COVID-19 outbreaks.
According to the province's most recent statistics, Springs Christian Academy on Lagimodiere has 25 cases (five staff, 20 non-staff) and its Youville campus has 10 (one staff and nine non-staff).
The church's recent offer of "religious exemptions" would appear to be out-of-step with other religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church. In September, Pope Francis said he didn't understand why people refused to take COVID-19 vaccines.
The Mennonite Church Canada says it won't be offering exemptions.
"The command to love God and love our neighbour is paramount. Vaccinations allow us to live out this command," said a statement from church officials to members earlier this month.
If City of Winnipeg employees do want to seek an exemption, a spokesperson said a process is in place.
That involves an application and information to explain the request "on the basis of religion or creed, or religious belief, religious association or religious activity as contemplated by The Human Rights Code of Manitoba," wrote David Driedger, the city's manager of corporate communications.
The Manitoba Human Rights Commission has weighed in on some of these issues.
"Not all religious or political related needs must be accommodated in the code-protected areas," including employment, "especially when serious risks to public health and safety are shown to exist like during a pandemic," says a fact sheet on COVID-19 vaccination from the Manitoba commission.
CBC News canvassed a number of public and private organizations for their policy on religious exemptions.
Manitoba Hydro says its workers must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30, or get regular testing.
"Accommodations to this … will be handled through our normal processes," based on existing laws, health guidelines and the Human Rights Code, Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen wrote.
Major employers giving staff a choice
Insurance and financial services company Canada Life does not have a policy specific to religious exemptions but does have workplace standards in place.
Any employee who is unvaccinated — for any reason — and has to be in the office must get a negative rapid test result before entering, Canada Life communications manager Kim Forgetta wrote.
Red River College Polytechnic has a comprehensive form for staff and students who want to rely on religious beliefs for a vaccination exemption.
The college "has a legal obligation to accommodate individuals" who ask for exemptions based on medical grounds or based on religion or creed, wrote RRC Polytech spokesperson Emily Doer.
Those will be considered on an individual basis, she wrote. The application form was assembled through consultation with human rights commissions across Canada and case law.
Due to privacy and confidentiality, the school was not able to say how many people had made a request for a religious exemption, but Doer told CBC News the number is very low.