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Winnipeg's Springs Church is the latest congregation flouting public health orders aimed at protecting Manitobans to lower the number of daily cases of COVID-19.

The largest church in the province held a drive-in service in its parking lot on Lagimodiere Boulevard just north of Fermor Boulevard on Saturday night with plans to hold three more on Sunday.

All four services will be in violation of the province's public health restrictions for gatherings. Along with ordering the cancellation of all religious gatherings, saying services have to be conducted only virtually, the province has also restricted both indoor and outdoor gatherings to five people.

Leon Fontaine, a senior pastor at the church, CEO of Miracle Channel, and a former first responder and emergency medical technician, could not be reached for comment.

In a Facebook message to parishioners, Fontaine said the church's service can be seen virtually, but people were welcome to drive to its parking lot to watch the service on a large screen.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Church Springs private security stands guard as vehicles line up to attend a drive-in church service on Saturday.</p>

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

Church Springs private security stands guard as vehicles line up to attend a drive-in church service on Saturday.

"You'll all be watching individually with your families in your own vehicle, watching the service safely from your car or electronically as I preach The Word," he said.

"We encourage you to stay in your vehicle please, there are no bathrooms available this weekend. We'll have police present to make sure everybody is safe. Sally (Fontaine, the church's other senior pastor) and I love you.

"It's all for nothing — if you and I don't have freedom."

On Saturday, a few dozen vehicles parked in rows pointed towards where Fontaine stood alone with a large video screen behind him. He gave a sermon for more than an hour, his breath coming out in fog in the cold evening air.

Every so often during the sermon, horns from vehicles would blare out in unison in place of the regular clapping that would occur during a normal service.

It is the second church in a week to ignore the code red public health restrictions.

A few dozen vehicles showed up at Springs Church to watch the outdoor service on Saturday. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

A few dozen vehicles showed up at Springs Church to watch the outdoor service on Saturday. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Last Sunday, the Church of God Restoration church on Highway 12, a few kilometres south of Steinbach, held an indoor service with more than 100 parishioners and was fined $5,000.  One of its ministers received a $1,296 fine for being at the religious service and another $1,296 fine for going to an earlier rally in Steinbach protesting against COVID-19 restrictions.

The church's leadership says the public health restrictions violate its charter rights and a church minister announced last week it was not deterred by the fines and will be holding another service on Sunday. Parishioners are being invited to enter the church or stay outside in their vehicles to watch the service virtually.

Manitoba RCMP said last week that public health orders supersede other acts in the interest of public safety, and it doesn't matter whether the religious gathering is indoors or in vehicles — it violates the maximum gathering allowances in the province.

The goal of officers wasn't to hand out tickets, Steinbach RCMP commander Staff Sgt. Harold Laninga said.

"We want to keep everyone from coming to a large gathering in the first place," he said.

"It is important to us that all citizens are aware of what the current orders are so they can abide by them. As always, our first and foremost goal is to keep everyone safe, and in these unprecedented times, that means staying at home."

A Winnipeg police spokesman confirmed earlier Saturday its officers would go to the Springs Church for safety reasons, but the lead investigating agency is Manitoba public health.

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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