Manitoba church fined $5K for holding service that broke public health order

A rural Manitoba church that held an in-person service last Sunday, which RCMP estimated was attended by well over 100 people, has been fined $5,000 for breaking a provincial public health order.

Tobias Tissen, minister at Church of God, confirmed the organization received a fine of $5,000 Tuesday.

The fines were given after the RCMP were called on Sunday to the church south of Steinbach — a southern Manitoba city that has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. Last Friday, Dr. Brent Roussin said the Steinbach health district had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 40 per cent. Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday that’s the highest rate in Canada.

The gathering at the church in the RM of Hanover violated a current Manitoba public health order that bans public gatherings with more than five people, and requires places of worship to close.

Tobias Tissen, minister at the Church of God, speaks at a rally in Steinbach on Nov. 14 that attracted over 100 people protesting against current government restrictions. (Marouane Refak/Radio-Canada)

Tissen, who himself was slapped with two fines totalling nearly $2,600 for attending a recent protest against COVID-19 restrictions and being at the Sunday religious service, said his church will likely fight the tickets in court.

‘Not asking for special treatment’: minister

“That ticket and the whole idea and agenda behind them fining people does not make sense to me, because it goes directly against our constitutional rights,” he said.

Tissen believes the public health order — which prohibits in-person attendance at services, but allows places of worship to offer virtual services — infringes on Charter rights protecting religious freedom. 

He doesn’t think it’s fair businesses like cannabis stores and Liquor Marts are considered essential, and can remain open, while churches have to close.

“We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for equal treatment and when we see different places being open … liquor stores and drugs being sold,” he said.

“For church to not be [considered] essential, I think that ought to get every Christian’s blood boiling.”

In an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press earlier this week, a University of Manitoba law professor said making masks mandatory or forcing the closure of non-essential businesses could violate Charter-protected rights to religious freedom, mobility, security and personal liberty.

But Karen Busby said she believes court challenges on the matter are bound to fail, because governments may restrict Charter rights as long as the violation is a “reasonable limit,” and one justifiable in a free and democratic society.

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