Seven Manitoba churches are back in court today in their legal fight over the province’s right to impose pandemic restrictions on them.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based advocacy group, represents seven Manitoba churches in their fight against pandemic orders that restrict church gatherings: Gateway Bible Baptist Church, Pembina Valley Baptist Church, Redeeming Grace Bible Church, Grace Covenant Church, Slavic Baptist Church, Christian Church of Morden, and Bible Baptist Church. Three individual applicants on the lawsuit include a minister, a deacon, and a man fined for attending a Steinbach protest rally.
The group argues Manitoba’s Public Health Act transfers sweeping lawmaking power to chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, with little or no legislative oversight. The justice centre, which has filed similar legal action in B.C. and Alberta, wants sections of the Public Health Act that authorize those powers to be struck down.
The scheduled eight-day hearing is expected to focus on arguments that lockdown measures violate freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and association.
Church gatherings in the province are currently restricted to 10 people or 25 per cent of capacity, whichever is lower, with everyone required to wear a mask.
Lockdown orders and other pandemic restrictions have been issued by the province’s chief public health officer with no scientific support, violating the charter rights of Manitobans, the justice centre argued at an earlier hearing in the proceeding last February.
"Today we have to wear a mask; is Dr. (Brent) Roussin going to go out tomorrow and say we have to wear five?" advocacy group lawyer Allison Pejovic asked during a hearing before Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Glenn Joyal.
"All he needs to say is this is reasonably necessary and there is no requirement to provide any science," Pejovic said. "There needs to be some checks on his power."
Under the act, the chief public health officer may take certain measures if he "reasonably believe(s)" they are necessary, Pejovic said.
"Somebody needs to scrutinize whether Dr. Roussin is reasonable with respect to his ‘reasonable belief,’" Pejovic said. "There is no criteria to decide whether an order of Dr. Roussin is necessary."
Lawyer Michael Conner, who represents the province, said Roussin’s orders are subject to "several layers" of checks and balances, with all levels of government "deeply involved" in decision-making.
Delegating authority to Roussin "makes sense" when dealing with a "rapidly evolving pandemic," but ministerial approval "is not a rubber stamp," Conner said.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.