Manitoba

Church of God Restoration could be fined up to $1M for repeatedly breaking COVID-19 rules

A southeastern Manitoba church notorious for repeatedly holding in-person services in defiance of public health orders is facing a new fine that could go as high as $1 million.

Church in rural municipality of Hanover known to hold in-person services in defiance of pandemic rules

The Church of God south of Steinbach, seen from above on Nov. 22, has already received fines for holding in-person church services in recent months. (Submitted)

A southeastern Manitoba church notorious for repeatedly holding in-person services in defiance of public health orders is facing a new fine that could go as high as $1 million.

Church of God Restoration in the rural municipality of Hanover is facing an "information laid" charge for repeated offences, the province's weekly enforcement bulletin says.

The province says the courts will determine the fine amount, but it could be as high as $1 million.

The potentially hefty fine is a first of its kind issued in Manitoba, provincial officials said. It was issued between May 31 and June 6.

Church of God is one of seven churches that took the province to court recently over public health orders. They argued the orders, which continue to prohibit gatherings and in-person services at places of worship, infringe on their charter freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly.

During the court hearings, dozens of maskless supporters gathered outside the Winnipeg court building to show their support for the church. Some of those individuals were subsequently fined.

The court case was led by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which was also leading similar court challenges in Alberta and B.C.

In a statement emailed to CBC, Allison Kindle Pejovic, one of the group's lawyers, described the province's threat of a $1-million fine as "a grossly disproportionate response" against a church whose members are exercising their Charter-protected freedom to worship.

The province continues to investigate Springs Church in Winnipeg, which has previously been fined for holding services against provisions in health orders, a provincial official said.

About two weeks ago, Springs posted since-deleted images to its Instagram account of a graduation ceremony with more than a dozen people who weren't wearing masks.

The weekly enforcement bulletin also says 131 tickets were issued the week of May 31 to June 6, including 124 tickets for $1,296 given to individuals.

Tickets for $298 for failing to wear masks at indoor public places were given to five people.

There were 35 tickets handed out in provincial parks over the past week for breaking health orders. On the weekend, hundreds of people filled the beach at Grand Beach.

Midtown Motor Inn in Portage la Prairie was fined $5,000.

Enforcement officials continue to investigate a number of large gatherings and rallies, the province says. More charges are expected in relation to those events.

Manitoba recently revised provincial regulations to allow public health enforcement officers to give bigger fines to repeat offenders.

People who don't pay their fines will be taken to court, the province said. If the ticket isn't challenged, the person will get a default conviction and a $100 penalty will be applied.

A convicted person will also be unable to renew a driver's licence or vehicle registration until the fine is paid, and the account will be forwarded to a collections agency, the news release says.

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