A Canadian church, which was fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services, has been denied relief from the public health orders that shut down its activities.
"These orders necessarily restrict rights … in order to prevent death, illness and the overwhelming of the public health system in Manitoba," ruled Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal. "I do not believe that the applicants meet their burden of showing that [the church] will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted."
Current restrictions, in place through December 11, prohibit gatherings of "more than five persons at any indoor or outdoor public place or in the common areas of a multi-unit residence." Religious gatherings are to be virtual as "churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship must be closed to the public while these orders are in effect."
Pastor Leon Fontaine of Springs Church in Winnipeg believes the ban on drive-in services is unreasonable since church goers remain in their vehicles with their windows rolled up and are not in contact with each other. Furthermore, they are prohibited to exit their vehicles to go to the restrooms.
"We have to ask ourselves why the government has deemed it unsafe for Manitobans to drive to their place of worship with their windows rolled up for the entirety of a service and practice their faith," Fontaine said. "We believe that Manitobans can have their right to practice their faith upheld while simultaneously upholding government COVID-19 prevention rules."
Fontaine filed suit to seek an injunction after his church was fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services that were in violation of the COVID-19 restrictions and receiving multiple tickets.
"It's a gathering, but it's a gathering with a person self-isolated in their vehicles," said Fontaine's attorney, Kevin Williams.
Joyal disagreed with Williams.
"The congregation attending in cars are persons. They are persons who have attended for a common purpose," Joyal said. "It would be unfair to other religious organizations if [Springs Church] was the only religious organization provided an exemption, while other religious organizations have to abide by the rules."
A letter signed by more than 50 pastors accused Fontaine and others of being "not an example of following Christ."
"We find that your insistence on the right to worship is not in keeping with Christ's command to love our neighbor," the letter said. "We find that your actions disregard the dangers of COVID-19 in our community and that they only serve to create potential harm for our healthcare system and healthcare workers already pushed beyond capacity."
Springs Church is now offering online-only services.