Church minister fined twice for breaking Manitoba’s public health order

A rural Manitoba church minister has been slapped with two fines totalling nearly $2,600.00 for attending a protest against COVID-19 restrictions and being at a Sunday religious service.

Tobias Tissen, minister at Church of God, confirmed he received two individual fines of $1,296 Monday night.

“To be honest. I feel honoured to get these and that I received them for doing something that God wants me to do,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

Tissen said he didn’t want to speak more about the fines because he felt he had been recently misrepresented by a story in the media.

The fines given to him comes a day after the RCMP said more than 100 people attended a service at the church south of Steinbach — a city with a COVID-19 test-positivity rate of 40 per cent — a rate among the highest in North America.

The gathering at the church in the RM of Hanover violated Manitoba’s current public health order that bans groups larger than five and requires places of worship to close.

Mounties were called to the church on Sunday but didn’t issue any fines. Tissen said he received his two fines from public health representatives who delivered them, accompanied by RCMP, Monday night.

Pastor asks ‘is this an attack on faith?’

Under an exception in the current code red public health order, religious leaders may offer services at a place of worship, but only for the purpose of offering it for viewing online or through other remote means.

The church’s pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt doesn’t think that’s fair. In a statement, he pointed out that Liquor Mart and cannabis stores are considered essential and allowed to be open.

Over 100 people in Steinbach, Man., located just over 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, protested on November 14th against COVID-19 restrictions. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“The question is, what is essential? If faith and the communal expression of faith is not essential during times of crisis, is this an attack on faith? We are not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment.”

“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.”

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said on Monday he was aware of the reports of ongoing church services and made a plea for them to stop.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin says in-person gathering ‘puts Manitobans at risk’:

Dr. Brent Roussin urged Manitobans who are taking part in faith-based gatherings to stay home in an effort to protect the community from COVID-19. 1:08

“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.

“We can’t have in-person gatherings. Not with the positivity rates we’re seeing. It puts Manitobans at risk.”

Debate over limit on religious freedom

Still, Hildebrandt feels Roussin’s request is overreaching.  

“The Bible teaches Christians to be good citizens and obey the reasonable demands of our government. It does, not however, teach blind obedience to the authorities when onerous restrictions are placed on our freedoms.

“In fact, 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. We now find ourselves debating what constitutes a justifiable, reasonable limit.”

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen scolded anyone who breaks a public health order in a written statement.

“We continue to hear of large gatherings occurring in contravention of our public health orders. This is extremely disappointing behaviour in direct conflict with the advice of our public health experts,” the minister said.

On Nov. 14, more than 100 people gathered in protest of government restrictions. Some in attendance spoke against mandatory masks. The RCMP were present but didn’t issue a single fine. A provincial enforcement officer did issue one fine to a reeve in attendance. 

The fine for individuals breaching the orders is $1,296 while corporations can be penalized with a $5,000 ticket.

A provincial spokesperson said the justice department will update on the public on COVID-19 enforcement efforts on Tuesday.