A Steinbach-area church plans to hold a full in-person service Sunday — and is warning its members not to be abusive toward any officials that may show up to enforce Manitoba public health orders.

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A Steinbach-area church plans to hold a full in-person service Sunday — and is warning its members not to be abusive toward any officials that may show up to enforce Manitoba public health orders.

Church of God Restoration Steinbach leadership claims the province's current COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on gatherings infringe on their charter rights and even the Criminal Code of Canada.

It is not a stance shared by the RCMP.

"You're invited to join us for our church service this Sunday at 9:30 a.m.," reads a church Facebook event post. "We have seating indoors or, if you prefer, you can park outside and join us live online."

Pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt confirmed to the Free Press the RM of Hanover church was fined $5,000 by the RCMP, after holding an in-person service last weekend, attended by more than 100 people. He said the congregation is undeterred, and plans to continue holding services — come what may.

Church of God Restoration Minister Tobias Tissen, centre, speaks at an anti-mask rally in Steinbach, Manitoba on Nov. 14.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Church of God Restoration Minister Tobias Tissen, centre, speaks at an anti-mask rally in Steinbach, Manitoba on Nov. 14.

In preparation, the church posted a message Friday afternoon, warning its members: "We will not tolerate any violent or abusive behaviour towards enforcement officials or anyone else. Anyone present on Sunday who engages in a show of violence, disrespect, or otherwise offensive behaviour towards any enforcement official will be asked to leave the property."

In a media statement released roughly a hour later, Manitoba RCMP said public health orders supersede other acts in the interest of public safety, and stressed gathering for religious services — whether indoors or in vehicles — is a contravention of the maximum gathering allowances in the province.

"Our goal is certainly not to hand out a bunch of tickets," said Steinbach detachment commander Staff Sgt. Harold Laninga. "We want to keep everyone from coming to a large gathering in the first place.

"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."

"Our goal is certainly not to hand out a bunch of tickets. We want to keep everyone from coming to a large gathering in the first place." — Steinbach detachment commander Staff Sgt. Harold Laninga

Meanwhile, the church may not have a legal leg to stand on, says University of Manitoba law Prof. Karen Busby.

While the right to religious belief and practice are covered by the charter, emergency scenarios take legal precedence, she said in an interview Friday.

"If the building was on fire, and a fire truck came and started spraying water on the building, you would never charge the firefighters with disturbing a religious service," she said.

"And what we’ve got here is a situation where the province is on fire — we’ve got to put the fire out."

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer

Busby highlighted the pandemic dangers inherent in an in-person church service: prolonged gatherings and singing in a large group of people have been decried by health officials as a surefire way to spread the novel coronavirus.

"The purpose is not to disturb a religious worship service, that’s the effect; the purpose is to control a dangerous situation," Busby said of the health orders. "I think most people recognize that it’s just not safe."

Early this year, the courts granted injunction orders to corporations looking to break up blockades on Manitoba rail lines that had sprung up in solidarity with anti-pipeline protests started by Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia.

Asked Friday whether the province would pursue such injunctions against the Steinbach churchgoers, as opposed to charging leaders after the fact, chief provincial public health officer Brent Roussin deferred to government to decide methods of enforcement.

"Public health provides advice on what should be restricted... We know that from the literature, from our own experience, that prolonged, indoor gathering such as faith-based gatherings are high risk for super-spreading events." — Manitoba chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin

"Public health provides advice on what should be restricted... We know that from the literature, from our own experience, that prolonged, indoor gathering such as faith-based gatherings are high risk for super-spreading events," Roussin said.

"So (that's) our advice, which was taken and put into orders. How exactly it’s enforced is not going to be public health’s duty."

Busby said government could have difficulty securing an injunction order against a church because services are being presented as an act of worship, not of civil disobedience.

Still, she stressed, any court faced with the conflict between religious freedoms and emergency orders would necessarily side with the emergency situation.

"All rights under charter have limitations on them, and in this situation, I can’t see a court second-guessing the government on the limitations they place on people unless those limitations are manifestly unjust," Busby said.

The Church of God Restoration has not indicated whether it intends to pay the fine received this week, noting it will seek counsel and consider next steps "carefully."

— with files from Grant Burr

julia-simone.rutgers@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jsrutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers
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Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.

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