Public health orders that are intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba, pay no attention to who is at most risk from contracting the virus, a judge was told Wednesday.

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Public health orders that are intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba, pay no attention to who is at most risk from contracting the virus, a judge was told Wednesday.

The "overbroad orders… are catching everyone when the statistics show there is a subset of the population that is more susceptible to COVID-19, yet they are all subject to the same orders," said Allison Pejovic, a lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents seven Manitoba churches and three individuals who are challenging the province’s pandemic restrictions as an attack on their charter rights.

"A line must be drawn before lockdowns become the new way of dealing with outbreaks," Pejovic said in a closing argument before Queen’s Bench Justice Glenn Joyal. "It will never stop unless our judiciary puts a stop to it, because there will always be a new virus, a new flu, another strain."

The churches — 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 — argue public health orders put in place since November, to restrict church and outdoor gatherings, violate their charter rights to worship, assembly and association.

"Our religious applicants are tired of having the state shut the doors on their weekly worship, which is fundamental to their very identity," Pejovic said. "The importance of worship in person cannot be minimized and cannot be quantified. Their relationship with God is so intertwined with their happiness and enjoyment of life, that preventing them from worshipping… in person together is utterly devastating."

Pejovic argued public health orders that restrict church services and outdoor gatherings are arbitrary, with no evidence they have had the intended result of curbing the spread of COVID-19.

"A law is arbitrary when it lacks a real connection on the facts to the purpose the law is meant to serve," she said. "While the (province) has argued the purpose is to, rightly so, prevent hospital admission stress and to prevent death… those orders on the facts are not connected to that purpose."

The province provided the court with no evidence that shows churches or outdoor gatherings have been a source for spreading the virus, Pejovic said.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin "ought to show the people the science before making these orders," Pejovic argued. "It’s obvious there is no science to back up banning outdoor events — they would have provided a study, they would have provided information that they have clusters from an outdoor gathering or something like that, but there is nothing."

In March, when churches were either closed or their service capacity was severely restricted, the local film industry continued to operate, buses continued to run, liquor stores remained open and grocery stores, both big and small, served customers, Pejovic said.

"Does a virus know it can only enter the church, it can’t go into Costco, it can’t go into the bus?" she said. "That’s arbitrary… Clearly COVID spread in other places too, not just churches."

Joyal will hear closing arguments from the province Thursday.

dean.pritchard@freepress.mb.ca

Dean Pritchard

Dean Pritchard
Courts reporter

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.

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