Manitoba’s ban on drive-in church services violates rights, but it may be justified: legal expert

WINNIPEG — A legal advocacy group is calling on the province to remove its ban on drive-in religious services, claiming the restriction is violating churchgoers’ rights – a claim one legal expert says may have merit.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a charitable legal advocacy group, has threatened to file an injunction against the province over its restrictions of drive-in church services.

The province recently ticketed multiple churches across Manitoba for holding drive-in services. Among them is Springs Church in Winnipeg, which was handed four separate tickets – each worth $5,000 – for its drive-in services on Saturday and Sunday.

READ MORE: Hundreds of people attend drive-in service at Winnipeg church

“The restriction of public religious gatherings in which people exclusively occupy their personal vehicles on a parking lot while worshipping is irrational, unnecessary, indefensible, and clearly not a minimal impairment of Charter rights,” Allison Pejovic, a lawyer with the Justice Centre, said in a letter written to Premier Brian Pallister on Tuesday.

“There is no justification for prohibiting people from parking in the same parking lot for a ‘drive-in’ religious service when big-box store parking lots and drive-through restaurant windows are open for business.”

Pejovic said if the province does not call off the restriction on the drive-in services, the group will file the injunction on the order.

CHARTER RIGHTS SUBJECT TO ‘REASONABLE LIMITS,’ EXPERT SAYS

Karen Busby, a professor of law at the University of Manitoba, said when it comes to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, all rights are subject to “reasonable limits in a free and democratic society.”

“If governments can show that there is good reason to pass a law, and if it is a rational law, and it’s minimally impairing the rights, then the law will be upheld as being a justifiable interference,” she said.

“Undoubtedly the religious rights are violated, the tricky thing in this case is, can the government justify (it)?”

Busby said she believes the province is justified in restricting in-person religious services – as they can lead to super-spreader events. However, it becomes a bit more of a grey area when considering drive-in services.

“The tricky thing in this case is people are staying in their own cars with the windows up, and they are confined to their family units and they are not getting out of their cars,” she said.

PREMIER DEFENDS CURRENT ORDERS

Pallister defended the current public health orders, saying they are necessary to curb the spread of the virus.

“We will continue to act on the advice of Dr. Roussin and our health care experts and implement the measures necessary to protect all Manitobans, especially our most vulnerable citizens,” a spokesperson for the premier told CTV News in a written statement.

“We recognize this is a challenging time, but we need the full participation of all Manitobans in order for these public health measures to work and we can get back to beating COVID-19.”

As for an injunction, Busby said it is unlikely it would be granted.

“They have got to show that there is irreparable harm to the community, to those seeking the injunction,” she said. “That’s a very difficult standard to prove. They also have to show that there isn’t harm to others through getting the injunction.”

Current health orders are set to expire on Dec. 11, 2020. Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, would not say if the province plans to allow drive-in religious services.

He did say the province continues to review these issues.

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