Drive-in worship is one way U.S. churches have creatively adapted to the ongoing pandemic and public-safety measures. But in the Canadian province of Manitoba, which currently has up to 40 percent COVID-19 test-positivity rates, even gathering in separate vehicles is banned.
Springs Church in Winnipeg, which has been fined $37,000 for conducting drive-in services, recently lost a court battle and moved back to online-only worship. Meanwhile, its pastor urges congregants to obey laws while asking politicians to allow innovative, safe worship solutions.
Government: Value Doesn’t Outweigh Risks
On Saturday, Glenn Joyal, Chief Justice of the Court Queen’s Bench, ruled that drive-in services with more than five attendees are prohibited gatherings. Having people stay in their own vehicles with windows rolled up is merely a self-imposed safety measure, he says, adding that exempting one church is unfair to others.
The government argued that people can listen to worship from home. “The value of being in the parking lot and listening to a remote service has to outweigh the value of mitigating risk and keeping people distant,” says lawyer Denise Guenette.
Law professor Karen Busby calls the case “tricky,” acknowledging that a ban may be justified despite infringing on freedoms. “If governments can show that there is good reason to pass a law,” she says, “and if it is a rational law and it’s minimally impairing the rights, then the law will be upheld as being a justifiable interference.”
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says leaders are following the advice of experts and want to protect citizens. “We need the full participation of all Manitobans in order for these public health measures to work [so] we can get back to beating COVID-19,” he says through a spokesperson.
Pastor: Comply, Advocate, and Pray
In a video message posted after the ruling, Springs Church Senior Pastor Leon Fontaine points out that “the Chief Justice is only interpreting rules that elected politicians have made” and “does not have the power to change the legislation.” Because of that, he asks congregants to be good citizens by following rules and worshiping from home. He also says they should respectfully contact leaders to request changes.
“There is an opportunity here to enhance the rules around gatherings so that drive-in church services and other innovative solutions can safely occur,” says Fontaine. “We can show our elected politicians that they can be innovative, keeping COVID-19 measures in place, while looking for ways to safely bolster the spirit of our community and protect Canadian Charter rights.” The pastor reports being informed that holding another “church in our cars” service could lead to fines of up to $100,000 for individuals and up to $1 million for an organization.
Lawyer Kevin Williams says Springs Church doesn’t deny the coronavirus exists and isn’t against masks. It merely believes it was following orders because worshipers were “self-isolated in their vehicles,” posing no harm to others.
Meanwhile, more than 50 Winnipeg-area church leaders signed a letter asking Springs Church to apologize for not prioritizing community safety. The legal challenge “really left a bad taste in my mouth,” says letter-writer Erik Parker, pastor of Sherwood Park Lutheran Church. Fighting health rules “is not what most people of faith, most Christians are doing.”
Battling restrictions puts medical workers in danger, the letter states. “We are just being told to stay at home, gather online, and worship online for a short amount of time,” it says. “Not so that we can have our rights taken away, but actually so that we can get back to a more normal world.”