Starting today, the province of Manitoba plans to move into Phase Three of its plan to restore safe services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new guidelines will double the number of people permitted in public gatherings to 50 for indoor services, 100 for outdoor events.
For some Manitoba churches, that simply isn’t good enough. They want the right to make up their own guidelines, and they’re petitioning the government for an exemption.
They say it’s a matter of human rights guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Initially, four Christian churches banded together to compose a petition and create a website, Reopen Manitoba Churches, to make their case. They composed a letter to the government requesting, in part, the freedom to ignore the public health rules everybody else has to follow:
It is time that the government remove any and all limits placed against the fundamental freedoms of Canadians to practice their religion and to peacefully assemble in accordance with their own conscience. Churches can assume responsibility to protect their own congregants from the risks of COVID-19 in ways that are appropriate to the individual contexts.
Their letter is slated to be sent to Premier Brian Pallister today. As of Thursday, their petition had garnered 2,000 signatures and close to 50 institutions speaking up in support.
Pastor Riley Toews of Grace Covenant Church in Altona is one of the petition’s originators, and he says churches can and should be trusted in crafting their own COVID policies:
The last thing that we want to do is make our people sick. We definitely want to care for the elderly and the vulnerable among us. We would be confident that churches would take all the relevant data into consideration in trying to make the best decisions for themselves and their congregations.
There’s a perhaps-unintended implication here: that public health bodies tasked with planning the reopening process are not considering all the relevant data, such that churches think they could do a better job. Otherwise, why not just follow the experts’ recommendations?
The answer is in the petition itself, which takes low case numbers as evidence that social distancing was an overreaction from the beginning:
As you are aware, churches have not been able to assemble freely since mid-March. We were told this was necessary to “flatten the curve” to save thousands of lives and to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. The data is now in and the curve is flat. Active cases peaked months ago on April 4. In Manitoba and indeed around the world, the models used to try to justify the lockdowns have proven inaccurate by the order of magnitudes. The infringement upon our constitutional freedoms is unjustified.
This misinterpretation of the data — in which low transmission rates prove that fears about COVID were overblown, when in fact they demonstrate the success of social distancing measures — illustrates perfectly why churches should not be allowed to ignore public health experts.
Manitoba’s chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin says he understands the importance faith groups place on in-person meetings. However, as he pointed out to reporters at the Winnipeg Sun, he must take into account the ways in which the nature of a church service presents particular risks absent from businesses that have been permitted to open:
We know and we’ve learned a lot from this virus… The close, prolonged, enclosed contact is where the biggest risk lies for the transmission of this virus. We’ve heard things like malls can open, but this is not the analogy that we are looking at. The real analogy [is theaters], which we haven’t allowed to open in Phase 3.
Premier Pallister says his government has worked to allow “significant latitude” for religious groups in this new COVID response phase, but he has been forthright about the inappropriateness of health policy crafted by pastors and priests:
We’ve liberalized our rules and deregulated faster than almost every jurisdiction in the country. I’m sure there’s something biblical or in the Koran about patience, and I would expect we need to have a little patience now.
Churches won’t make health policy. Dr. Roussin and our health experts are making that health policy, and they have good reason for being careful about the restrictions that are necessary to keep us all safe. And I think it would be in the best interests of all of us to show respect for that.
He’s right. Not every government policy needs to be interpreted through a lens of Christian persecution. Sometimes, they’re just trying to keep everyone safe.
(Image via Shutterstock)