Manitoba

More stand in defiance of public health order at religious events

More Manitobans are joining the fight against a public health order that forces places of worship to close and the battle could soon play out in court.

Legal expert says court challenge could happen for anyone fined at drive-in religious service

People stand outside the Church of God near Sarto, Man., south of Steinbach on Sunday. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Singing hymns together outside, about 80 people stood together in defiance of a public health order in the city of Winkler Sunday. 

The group is the latest to break Manitoba's current ban on group sizes larger than five. The public health order forces places of worship to close and doesn't allow drive-in services to take place. 

Despite the order, hundreds of people came out to multiple religious events south of Steinbach, in Winkler and in Winnipeg this weekend.

"I am disappointed. I think there are other ways in which to get our point across without having to gather in an illegal manner and try and provoke animosity between individual groups," said Winkler Mayor Martin Harder. 

Winkler police say about 80 people defied the rules while holding a religious gathering in a park. When police got word, officers blocked the entrance to one park and the group popped up in another.

Gathering doesn't reflect Winkler: Mayor

"The vast majority of churches would strongly voice their concerns against this type of gathering. It's a select few possibly that are a little bit more conservative that would have more of this kind of an approach," said Harder Monday. 

The fight for religious freedom isn't just playing out in the province's Bible Belt. Vehicles packed the Springs Church parking lot in Winnipeg Saturday night for a drive-in service. 

University of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby said anyone fined for going inside a church is likely to have a hard time using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to fight the ticket in court. 

WATCH | Large groups gather to worship breaking public health order:

More stand in defiance of public health order at religious events

CBC News Manitoba

5 months ago
2:03
More Manitobans are joining the fight against a public health order that forces places of worship to close. As CBC's Austin Grabish shows us, the battle could soon play out in court. 2:03

She said in her view a court would find the order to be a reasonable limit on religious freedoms, but said someone fined for attending a drive-in service might have a chance of fighting the ticket.

"I think it's 50/50 whether or not the courts would enjoin from the get-go the ability of people to meet in that way because it's a little bit less clear that that behaviour is risky."

Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin acknowledged the province previously allowed drive-in services under previous public health orders. 

He said the current circuit-breaker order is meant to keep people home as much as possible, and said even drive-in events have risks. 

The RCMP issued one fine after a large crowd came outside the Church of God near Sarto, Man., south of Steinbach on Sunday. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

"Whenever you're gathering a large amount of people in the same area for a prolonged period of time then you look at other parts. Are people going to be in their car? Is that all household people in there? Does anyone need to use the washroom during this time?" Roussin said.

Winkler police said they didn't fine anyone at the gathering Sunday but are in talks with public health about next steps.

The RCMP fined one person for a gathering Sunday outside the Church of God near Sarto, Man., south of Steinbach that quickly turned into a standoff between police and churchgoers.  

The church and its minister has already been fined for holding an in-person service. It says it will hold another service next weekend.

The province is expected to release an update on COVID-19 enforcement Tuesday. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​Austin Grabish joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In 2019, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Have a story idea? Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson

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