Canadian Church Fined More Than $32K for Holding Drive-In Services Loses Legal Challenge

WINNIPEG — A church in Canada that had been fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services, which have been banned in red COVID zones, has been denied relief from the public health orders that prohibited its activities.

“These orders necessarily restrict rights … in order to prevent death, illness and the overwhelming of the public health system in Manitoba,” Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal ruled on Saturday, according to the CBC. “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.”

The current restrictions, which are in place through Dec. 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 must be held virtually, as “churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship must be closed to the public while these orders are in effect.”

However, Springs Church in Winnipeg believes the ban on drive-in services is unreasonable as church members remain in their cars with their windows rolled up and are not in contact with one another. Participants are not even allowed to exit their vehicles to use the restroom.

Pastor Leon Fontaine notes that residents are, conversely, freely allowed to exit their vehicles and walk in to the local grocery, liquor or cannabis store.

“[W]e 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,” he said in a video statement on Wednesday, noting that other provinces in Canada make allowance for drive-in services.

“[W]e believe that Manitobans can have their right to practice their faith upheld while simultaneously upholding government COVID-19 prevention rules,” he outlined.

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As Springs Church has been fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services in violation of the COVID restrictions, receiving numerous tickets, Fontaine filed suit to seek an junction. His attorney argued that the prohibition on church gatherings violates the Charter of Rights and Freedom and contended that the order seems to refer only to gatherings of people and not parking lots of vehicles.

“It’s a gathering, but it’s a gathering with a person self-isolated in their vehicles,” attorney Kevin Williams told CTV News.

However, Justice Joyal disagreed, stating, “The congregation attending in cars are persons. They are persons who have attended for a common purpose.”

Attorneys representing the Province of Manitoba asserted that the church had provided no evidence that it is more beneficial for the people to listen to the services in their cars than it is for them to stay at home and watch on YouTube or Facebook.

Joyal agreed.

“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,” he stated, according to the CBC.

More than 50 pastors even signed an open letter stating that Fontaine and others were “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,” they claimed. “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.”

But Springs Church, while now offering online only services, says that the restrictions just don’t add up.

“You can spend about the equivalent of a church service in Costco and you can physically get out of your car, so it seems to be a double standard there,” member Tim Sanderson told Global News.

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