Winnipeg's Springs Church drive-in service not exempt from public health orders, court rules
Unable to prove attending church virtually causes irreparable harm to congregants
A Manitoba court has ruled that a Winnipeg church will not be exempt from public health orders and is not permitted to hold drive-in worship services.
Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal denied Springs Church's application to hold services in the parking lot of its Lagimodiere Boulevard location and its request for an interim stay of the province's current public health order that prohibits in-person religious gatherings.
"These orders necessarily restrict rights ... in order to prevent death, illness and the overwhelming of the public health system in Manitoba," Joyal said in a rare Saturday court hearing.
Springs Church and two of its pastors have been fined more than $32,000 for allowing the services, which are banned under Manitoba's current public health order aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
The order, which is set to expire on Dec. 11, requires places of worship to be closed to the public. Other strict conditions include prohibiting the sale of non-essential items in stores and a ban on visitors in private homes.
The health order allows religious leaders to hold services over the internet or "other remote means," but doesn't allow drive-in services.
The church's lawyer, Kevin Williams, argued that remote services would cause irreparable harm to the congregants, adding that "community is the backbone of religion."
In addition, Williams debated the definition of assembly, saying it is "absurd" that public health orders allow Manitobans to wait in their cars in drive-thru lines and park in parking lots to get groceries, but not to attend church.
The public health orders weren't made to restrict buying food or essentials, Joyal said, even though that "may inevitably, on occasion, lead to contact with others." They were made, the judge said, to prevent people from assembling in large groups.
"The congregation attending in cars are persons. They are persons who have attended for a common purpose."
Heather Leonoff, who represented the province, argued that approving Springs Church's exemption would set a dangerous precedent.
Joyal agreed, saying it could cause a "cascade" of religious organizations seeking to be excused from the public health order.
"It would be unfair to other religious organizations if [Springs Church] was the only religious organization provided an exemption, while other religious organizations have to abide by the rules," he said.
Joyal said Williams and the church could not provide evidence of why the drive-in service is necessary. While remote services are perhaps not as community-oriented, he said, the differences aren't significant enough to exempt the church.
In a video statement posted on the church's Facebook page on Saturday evening, Springs pastor Leon Fontaine asked his congregation not to come to the church for a drive-in service on Saturday or Sunday.
Fontaine — who has been personally fined at least four times for violating public health orders, for a total of more than $5,000 — also asked people to contact their elected officials to express their views on the ban on drive-in services.
"I know that with the united voice of our community, regardless of your faith, we can show our elected politicians that they can innovate [and] keep COVID-19 measures in place, while looking for ways to safely bolster the spirit of our community and protect Canadian Charter rights," Fontaine said in the video.
He said the church is still deciding on what steps to take next.
"We have strategies, and we'll be coming to you with more details in coming days. We're not done yet."
Joyal did not address any alleged violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on Saturday, saying that will be adjudicated, if necessary, at a later date.
That's something that Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, will be watching closely.
"The answer to the question, 'How are you justifying these restrictions on rights and freedoms?' is a question that should have already been answered before the law and order was put in place," she said.
"Those are answers that the government should have at the ready before they impose restrictions on people's rights and freedoms."
The courts, Zwibel said, "should be scrutinizing the decisions that governments are making and the evidence that they're relying on in making those decisions."
- We initially reported that Steve Robertson was the lawyer representing Springs Church at the court hearing. In fact, Kevin Williams was the lawyer who spoke at the hearing.Dec 06, 2020 5:27 PM CT
With files from Austin Grabish