Given that Manitobans are enduring an unprecedented curtailment of freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, a legal challenge was legitimate and healthy for democracy.
Manitoba needed an authoritative answer to the frequent lament, "COVID-19 restrictions violate our constitutional rights." We now have the answer. A 156-page court ruling released last Thursday boils down to: "No. Constitutional rights are not being violated."
Seven Manitoba churches had argued the province’s public-health orders unfairly infringed on their legal liberties, including their freedom of religion, and were improperly enacted into law. Although the ruling applies only to Manitoba, it was watched nationally as a possible precedent for legal challenges to COVID-19 restrictions in other provinces.
Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal ruled it is neither unconstitutional nor undemocratic for COVID-19 public-health orders to restrict gatherings and limit the number of worshippers at church services. He agreed freedom of religious expression and peaceful assembly have been restricted, but said this was justified as a pandemic response guided by evidence-based science.
The churches had also argued that only the legislature, and not chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, could craft the laws that have temporarily suspended many freedoms of Manitobans since the pandemic arrived 19 months ago. Justice Joyal also ruled against the churches on this point, saying the legislature acted properly when it gave such authority to Dr. Roussin because the threat to public health is urgent and the emergency measures are "constitutionally justifiable."
The ruling is welcome, coming amid considerable tensions in Manitoba about pandemic restrictions. Objections to the restrictions have been often aired through public protests and opinions expressed through mainstream and social media. Defiance of restrictions has been blatant in some cases, with some businesses and churches refusing to check for vaccination status as required.
In other instances, defiance has been as sneaky as the spectators at mask-mandated sporting events who take hours to nibble at a snack or sip a soda, thereby exploiting a loophole that says spectators can doff their masks when actively eating or drinking.
To their credit, the churches chose an appropriate forum to present their challenge. Launching an appeal within the legal system is certainly preferable to reprehensible alternatives such as a protest on Sept. 1 in front of Health Sciences Centre that interfered with medical staff and patients’ access to the facility.
One hopes the court ruling will lay the issue to rest. There already was rock-solid scientific evidence that the spread of COVID-19 could best be limited by the restrictions Manitoba imposed. Now, there is an equally strong legal ruling that, constitutionally, the restrictions are justified by the urgent threat to public health.
It would be unfortunate if the people who legally challenged the restrictions refuse to abide by the ruling because it didn’t go their way. It would be unfortunate for their own health, and also for the health of their families and friends who are thrust into greater risk of COVID-19 infection because someone in their vicinity continues to defy the restrictions that effectively reduce the chances of transmission.
Right-minded people will accept the ruling as clear-cut determination that the restrictions are based on a solid legal foundation, and will heed the restrictions to the letter of the law.
As for scofflaws who defy the ruling, continue to look for ways around the restrictions and thereby endanger public health, they should be actively prosecuted. Law enforcement officials now have the assurance they are acting with the full backing of Manitoba’s highest trial court. The restrictions should be enforced with stepped-up diligence.