Paying for pastor’s, church’s sins Steinbach-area congregation leader asking donors for $75,000 to cover COVID fines

A Manitoba church and pastor penalized for repeatedly violating COVID-19 public-health orders are asking supporters to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

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A Manitoba church and pastor penalized for repeatedly violating COVID-19 public-health orders are asking supporters to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The Church of God (Restoration), about 15 kilometres south of Steinbach, recently began using a Christian crowdfunding website to solicit almost $75,000 in donations.

A total of $850 had been raised as of Tuesday afternoon.

At peak times during the pandemic, the church and pastor Tobias Tissen openly violated lockdown restrictions designed to protect Manitobans by curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Rev. Erik Parker, a Winnipeg pastor who was outspoken about churches that breached public-health orders, took issue with the fundraising campaign.

“It feels a little odd because, generally, people give to churches for the promotion of religion,” he said. “To pay off fines from the government almost sounds to me like a questionable use of charitable status.”

The work of churches is meant to be for the public good, said Parker, citing the alleviation of poverty as an example.

“If they get exactly the amount needed, are they going to end the fundraiser or are they going to keep it open to possibly raise substantially more?” said the pastor of Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in East Kildonan. “Raising money to pay fines… this is really not what churches should be about.”

According to the fundraising page, the Church of God (Restoration) and several members have been fined a total of $74,561, including $27,115 in charges against Tissen.

Prof. Neil McArthur, director of the centre for professional and applied ethics at the University of Manitoba, said the use of crowdfunding websites to pay fines could threaten a government’s ability to punish convicted offenders, deter similar behaviour or protect the public during, in this case, a pandemic.

People or organizations can get off scot-free by seeking financial help from like-minded people around the world, he said.

“When you’re basically giving anyone a licence to escape local fines, then it becomes very problematic,” said McArthur.

The Church of God (Restoration), which did not respond to a request for comment, was fined $30,000 on Jan. 12, after admitting to two counts of breaching Manitoba’s Public Health Act on six occasions between Nov. 22, 2020 and May 23, 2021.

It held in-person services in the Rural Municipality of Hanover while large public gatherings were banned by the government.

Provincial court Judge Michael Clark gave the church seven years to pay the fine.

Defence lawyer Alex Steigerwald told a court hearing the penalty will have an impact on the church, which survives on donations mostly from its small congregation.

The church, a registered charity, reported revenue of $307,538 and expenses of $249,277 in 2021, the Canada Revenue Agency’s website shows. Financial data for 2022 is not yet available.

The CRA sets out specific guidelines around fundraising by registered charities, said Winnipeg-based tax lawyer Leilani Kagan.

“The government doesn’t have a lot of published literature around this because it’s pretty rare,” she said.

The situation could become problematic if tax receipts are distributed, Kagan said. The church’s fundraising page doesn’t mention tax receipts.

The platform’s terms of service state taxing authorities may classify funds as taxable income, and donors are responsible for determining how to treat their contribution for tax purposes.

The CRA did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

In August, Tissen was ordered to pay $16,492 after he and four other Manitobans were convicted of repeated violations of public-health orders. They were ticketed for their involvement in anti-lockdown rallies between November 2020 and May 2021; the province had placed restrictions on outdoor gatherings.

The group has launched an appeal.

Tissen, 28, also received multiple tickets for breaching the federal Quarantine Act in December 2021 when he returned to Manitoba from a work-related trip in Mexico.

On Jan. 20, provincial court Judge Rachel Rusen ordered him to pay $4,275 — half the maximum penalty — within 30 months after finding him guilty of violating the act.

Court was told the pastor, who was not fully vaccinated, refused to take a required COVID-19 test when he arrived at Winnipeg’s airport.

Tissen told the judge he considered the test to be invasive and he just wanted to return home after a long journey.

Federal Crown prosecutor Benjamin Johnson said Tissen was fined a total of $8,550 in May after admitting to violating the federal act.

Tissen, who was given until the end of 2025 to pay the amount, had been ticketed for breaches that occurred during a mandatory self-isolation period following his return to Canada.

“These orders were put in place to protect Canadians, protect Manitobans from a pandemic that has killed millions and millions and millions and millions of people,” said Johnson.

The Manitoba government has reported 2,256 deaths associated with COVID-19 infection since early 2020.

After the Mexico trip, Tissen told the Steinbach Carillon he obtained a religious exemption to leave the country at a time when strict federal rules required air passengers to show proof of vaccination to board a plane.

Provincial COVID-19 mandates and most of Canada’s travel restrictions, including a quarantine period, are no longer in place.

In October 2021, Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal dismissed a challenge by seven churches, including Church of God (Restoration), that argued pandemic restrictions violated their freedom of religion and expression.

The churches were spared from having to pay the province’s legal bills.

with files from Dean Pritchard

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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