Manitoba pastor who openly defies pandemic restrictions tells court he has no authority to enforce rules
No authority "based on our Christian convictions" to limit church capacity, order mask-wearing, court told
The religious figure perhaps most outspoken against Manitoba's pandemic-era restrictions has told court it's not his place to enforce public health orders.
Church of God pastor Tobias Tissen said Monday he does not have the jurisdiction to limit people from going to his church, or force them to wear masks.
"We have no authority scripturally-based and based on Christian convictions to limit anyone from coming to hear the word of God," he told the Court of Queen's Bench in Winnipeg.
Tissen was cross-examined Monday to start a two-week hearing challenging Manitoba's right to impose public health restrictions.
The minister of the RM of Hanover church, south of Steinbach, is fighting the lockdown measures, along with seven rural churches.
The group is arguing the public health orders — which have curtailed or banned church attendance at various times — violate the Charter freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly. The province's lawyers state the limits on personal freedoms are a reasonable measure to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal acknowledged the high public interest in the case. The Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) is also leading similar court challenges in Alberta and B.C.
Pastor attended anti-lockdown protests
Tissen and his church have been fined repeatedly for violating Manitoba's public health orders. The Church of God has ignored capacity limits and held indoor services when they were prohibited.
He confirmed to the court that he's attended various anti-lockdown protests, including one in Alberta where he didn't follow Manitoba's self-isolation rules upon his return.
He also said he would attend a protest outside the courthouse that afternoon.
The roughly 150 people in the crowd exceeded the current 10-person capacity for outdoor gatherings. The rally included speakers from Alberta and B.C, but it isn't known if they observed Manitoba's 14-day isolation requirement for people who enter the province for non-essential purposes.
The Manitoba government said enforcement officers were monitoring the rally and collecting video evidence to support any tickets that are dispensed. Winnipeg police members were also present.
During the hearing, social media video of one of Church of God's indoor services was presented as evidence in court. At one point, Tissen objected to the video being displayed as he said it was dragging his church members, including children, and adding to the "trauma, stress and harassment" they've endured.
When asked if his church was legally allowed to hold an indoor service on that date, Jan. 31, 2021, Tissen said the closure was "required by men," but not by God.
The minister testified his church has not prevented any congregants from observing public health orders while worshipping, such as wearing masks. Anybody who is sick or has flu-like symptoms is told to stay home from church, he said.
The court also heard Monday from Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford University who has been a vocal opponent of lockdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heather Leonoff, a lawyer for the province, questioned the expertise of the churches' witness. She noted that although Bhattacharya has a PhD in economics and a medical degree, he is not licensed to practice medicine.
At the start of the hearing, Joyal said he would be "very disappointed and somewhat irritated" by any suggestion the public isn't welcome to watch, which was a complaint heard at the protest.
He said the 55 members of the public who received a link to watch the online conference is more than most courtrooms can support in person. Virtual attendance was limited due to concerns around bandwidth for the video conference.
Last December, Joyal rejected a case brought by Springs Church in Manitoba to hold drive-in services while there were restrictions on public gatherings and in-person religious events.
That church faced more than $32,000 in fines for services at the time of the hearing.
Drive-in church services are now allowed under the province's health orders.
WATCH | Manitoba churches challenge COVID-19 restrictions in court:
With files from Karen Pauls, Cameron MacIntosh and The Canadian Press