Manitoba RCMP is investigating a Steinbach-area church after reports that a service was taking place Sunday morning — which is a violation of public health rules under the province’s new, stricter COVID-19 guidelines.
Police said they were called to Church of God in the RM of Hanover just after 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and while they spoke with an individual on site, no fines were immediately issued.
RCMP say there were “well over” 100 people inside the church and they said officers had to balance police and public safety when determining a response.
They are, however, continuing to investigate.
In a statement, Church of God Pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt questioned if this is an attack on faith.
“There must be an allowable expression of faith that is deemed essential while we are allowing the sale of products at establishments that exist solely for the sale of alcohol, coffee, donuts, cannabis, and fast food.”
“We are guaranteed the right to religious freedom and peaceful assembly in the Canadian Constitution, subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” the statement added.
But constitutional lawyer Corey Shefman said he wouldn’t want to be the church if this were to go to court.
“If the government can justify that a limitation on worshipping in person is justified in a free and democratic society for example, because it’s going to save lives, then that is a reasonable limit on your rights,” Shefman said. “It’s about reasonable limits and where that is, well, it may be tested in court.”
The incident comes just one day after a group of nearly two dozen area pastors signed an open letter urging their congregations to abide by public health orders.
The Steinbach area has been a hotspot for pandemic-related controversy in recent weeks. A rally that saw hundreds of mask-free people protesting the province’s restrictions drew the ire of a wide range of officials — including Steinbach mayor Earl Funk and Manitoba premier Brian Pallister — the previous weekend.
At Monday’s COVID-19 press conference — where the province announced a record-setting 546 new cases — chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin weighed in on the controversy.
Roussin said he heard reports of a number of faith-based organizations still holding in-person services over the weekend, and pleaded with those taking part to stop.
“It should be quite clear, these orders are not here to restrict your right to worship, these orders are here to save lives,” he said.
“When we have a test positivity of 14 per cent, we see in some areas of up to 40 per cent, we can’t have in-person gatherings.
“We need to reduce these numbers and large, in-person gatherings put people there at risk, they put the community at large at risk, they put our health-care workers at risk.”