'That's in God's jurisdiction': Churches challenge constitutionality of Manitoba's public health orders

An anti-restriction rally coincided with a legal challenge of Manitoba’s public health orders on Monday.

Seven churches and three individuals are fighting the province’s measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The 10 applicants, which include a church minister repeatedly fined for defying orders, are being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

The applicants are arguing the orders infringe on their Charter rights to hold religious and public gatherings and to gather at private homes.

On Monday, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal began hearing testimony from witnesses in the case.

Tobias Tissen, a minister at the Church of God Restoration near Steinbach, Man., testified in the case and then spoke at the rally.

He’s one of the 10 applicants challenging the constitutionality of Manitoba’s measures.

During the virtual court hearing, Tissen testified he can’t stop people from attending services.

“We have no authority, scripturally-based and based on Christian convictions, to limit anyone from coming to hear the word of God,” Tissen told court. “We have no authority to tell people you can’t come to church. That’s in God’s jurisdiction.”

Throughout the pandemic places of worship have faced varying levels of restrictions including capacity limits and bans on holding in-person services.

During his testimony, Tissen acknowledged his church has held services that defy orders with the congregation in attendance.

“We’ve communicated to them to stay home if they’re not feeling well,” Tissen testified. “We can’t force anyone to wear a mask.”

Lawyers for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms representing Tissen and the churches called Stanford University Medicine professor Jay Bhattacharya as an expert witness.

Bhattacharya was cross-examined by Manitoba government lawyers over a study he conducted on COVID-19 antibodies.

During a portion of his testimony, Bhattacharya testified people of all ages have died of COVID-19 but the risk increases with age.

Government lawyers have previously argued provincial legislation gives the chief public health officer the power to implement emergency orders during a pandemic.

Meantime, people protesting public health measures gathered outside the Law Courts building as the constitutional case was being heard.

The crowd of around 200 people —the majority not wearing masks or physical distancing — listened to a choir and cheered as some speakers lashed out at members of the media, politicians and public health officials.

Enforcement officers could be seen in the area but there has been no immediate word on any tickets handed out or arrests made in connection with the protest.

The court case is scheduled to take place over two weeks.