His congregation might be small, but Beausejour minister Mark Reimer wants the freedom for all his parishioners — and every church in Manitoba — to gather without any restrictions on group size and physical distancing.

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His congregation might be small, but Beausejour minister Mark Reimer wants the freedom for all his parishioners — and every church in Manitoba — to gather without any restrictions on group size and physical distancing.

This weekend, the pastor of Grace Life Church plans to present Premier Brian Pallister with a petition signed by dozens of southern Manitoba churches asking him to remove any limits on gathering size, social distancing or other health precautions due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Grace Life Church pastor Mark Reimer said his requests stems from the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Katie Barkman Photo)</p>

Grace Life Church pastor Mark Reimer said his requests stems from the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Katie Barkman Photo)

Reimer said his requests stems from the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Our argument is the threat to health isn’t significant enough to supersede the Charter of Rights," said Reimer.

Since the shutdown in mid-March, Reimer’s congregation of about 70 has met online or in smaller groups in homes. He developed the petition, titled Reopen Manitoba Churches, in early June and circulated it among other evangelical Christian ministers before posting it online. The petition says churches can assume responsibility to protect their people in the way that is best for their own context. By late Thursday afternoon, 1,400 individuals and 48 churches had signed on.

“It could be up to the individual (to decide) what’s the risk of catching this. We do this all the time during flu season.” –Mark Reimer

"We generally accept there are some risks to how we live," Reimer said, comparing the risks of contracting COVID-19 in Manitoba as less than being killed in an automobile collision.

"It could be up to the individual (to decide) what’s the risk of catching this. We do this all the time during flu season."

Reimer also said in an interview that citizens shouldn’t be forced to wash their hands and health experts don’t agree on the best way to deal with the global pandemic.

At Thursday’s news conference, Premier Pallister urged religious groups to be patient, citing it as a biblical virtue. He also reminded church organizations that health policy is not their jurisdiction but the responsibility of Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, and his team of advisors.

"They have good reasons for being careful about the restrictions that are necessary to keep us all safe," the premier said.

"And I think it would be in the best interests of all of us to show respect for that and to make sure all of us (are) working together to protect our own health and the health of others."

"I think it would be in the best interests of all of us to show respect for that and to make sure all of us (are) working together to protect our own health and the health of others.” –Premier Brian Pallister

Under Phase 3 guidelines, which come into effect this Sunday, groups of 50 can gather indoors with physical distancing. The guidelines also allow for indoor gatherings of up to a maximum of 30 per cent of the site’s capacity as long as the assembly can be divided into smaller groups of 50 or less. Each sub-group must enter, participate, and leave without co-mingling with members of another sub-group.

That means churches or other religious groups with larger buildings can meet in the same space, provided they follow the public health guidelines.

Reimer said the Phase 3 guidelines don’t go far enough, since churches with large members would not be able to accommodate everyone in their buildings because of the 30 per cent capacity cap and limited number of entrances and exits.

Churches from several southern Manitoba communities such as Altona, Morden, Steinbach, Morris have signed the petition, as have nine churches in Winnipeg, including Springs Church. Not all signatories agree with Reimer in suggesting physical distancing and other health guidelines not be followed during worship.

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Rev. Joshua Shetter of Redeeming Grace Bible Church in Morden said his church has already adapted how they serve communion by providing individual servings of juice and wafers and he encourages vulnerable members to stay home once they start meeting again to protect their own health.

"We want to be legal and we don’t want to defy the government," he said of his congregation of 70 people, which usually meets in a rented space in a senior’s building, now closed due to the pandemic.

Winnipeg pastor Wayne Bustard signed the petition because of his frustrations around large group restrictions in the first two phases of re-opening but said Phase 3 has addressed most of his concerns. Members of his Wide World of Faith Church have been meeting outside on the church parking lot for the last three Sundays and plan to move indoors when Phase 3 comes into effect. The downtown church could seat 135 people in three segregated groups, and his members look forward to meeting together again.

"It’s where they find their strength and peace and hope," said Bustard.

"When you take it away and people are isolated, and a lot of them do not do well."

brenda@suderman.com

Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.

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