Pandemic restrictions don’t infringe on right to faith, say some Manitoba religious leaders

As a group of seven churches are challenging Manitoba’s public health restrictions in court this week, saying they violate religious freedoms, many faith leaders are pushing back at that notion, saying they don’t feel the same way.

“I’ve heard a lot of other fellow Christians say that this doesn’t really represent most of us in Manitoba, and most of us in southern Manitoba, in terms of how we feel about these things,” said Michael Pahl, executive minister of Mennonite Church Manitoba, an association of more than 30 congregations.

The churches involved in the court challenge argue the lockdown measures are unjustified violations of Charter-protected freedoms of religion, expression and peaceful assembly. 

Since early on in the pandemic, various restrictions have been imposed on indoor gatherings in Manitoba — either banning them completely or imposing capacity limits — which has affected religious gatherings.  

Pahl says while gathering is an essential part of many religions, including Christianity, Christians are called to care for others.

“When we need to make a decision about cancelling our in-person worship services in order to love our neighbour better, then to me, that’s an easy decision to make,” he said.

Michael Pahl, executive minister of Mennonite Church Manitoba, says he does not feel his religious rights are being infringed upon by pandemic restrictions. (Submitted by Michael Pahl)

The idea that Christian rights are being infringed upon is “a misunderstanding of what Christian freedom is, really,” said Pahl.

Christians can demonstrate their freedom of faith by showing compassion for those who are suffering and those who are vulnerable, he said.

“I think the best way we can do that is actually by following these public health orders, restricting our gathering, wearing masks, getting vaccinated, all of those kinds of things.”

The churches involved in anti-lockdown protests and rallies don’t represent the views of all Christians, according to Pahl, who says it’s frustrating to see such groups “using religion, or Christianity in particular, to justify their actions.”

Political motivations at play: pastor

Rev. Erik Parker, the pastor at Winnipeg’s Sherwood Park Lutheran Church, says while he disagrees with the views of the churches involved in the challenge, he has compassion for them and understands the frustrations many churches are feeling.

“A lot of church people are feeling like we lost something, feeling like we’re grieving that … part of the family has died,” he said.

Rev. Erik Parker is a pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in Winnipeg. He thinks the court challenge is more about politics than about religious freedom. (Erik Parker)

However, he wonders what is driving the group behind the court challenge to such lengths.

“Nobody is saying that we can’t believe what we believe, that we can’t be people of faith, communities of faith,” said Parker.

“We’re just being asked to sacrifice [gathering for a while] for the sake of our community, which being a follower of Jesus is about — loving a neighbour to sacrifice.”

He thinks the court challenge is more about politics than about religious freedom.

“I see a group that may be just sort of being influenced by outside groups, that they’re getting sort of mixed up in politics,” he said.

He hopes his church’s members, and other Christians, don’t get lumped in with the seven churches behind the legal challenge.

“This is a small but vocal minority among Christians.”

Obligation to protect society: rabbi

Rabbi Kliel Rose of Congregation Etz Chayim also wonders what’s motivating the court challenge.

“I don’t like to be critical of what other people do, especially when it comes to faith-based groups. But I remain perplexed by this move at this particular time,” as Manitoba is in the midst of its third wave of COVID-19 cases, Rose said.

While government doesn’t have a right to interfere with an individual’s religious life, “government has a major obligation to protect the collective, to protect the society,” said Rose.

“And if that means to stay clear of congregating in groups within an enclosed space, as we’ve been advised to do here in Manitoba, I’m not sure why we wouldn’t follow those guidelines.”

Like Parker, Rose said he understands the frustrations behind restrictions on services, and he worries about the emotional and spiritual well-being of his congregants.

“There’s nothing pleasant about any of this,” he said.

“I am yearning, as are the majority of my congregants … to be back together in person.”

Rose said religious leaders are doing everything they can to keep people feeling connected, including reaching out through video calls, study groups, or social media.

“I’m well aware of the loneliness factor and feeling isolated and the lack of communal connection that’s taking place as a result of the pandemic. But I don’t think that supersedes the medical protective measures that are in place.”

The Manitoba churches involved in the court challenge are Gateway Bible Baptist Church, Pembina Valley Baptist Church, Redeeming Grace Bible Church, Grace Covenant Church, Slavic Baptist Church, Christian Church Of Morden, Bible Baptist Church. 

Lawyers for the group are also representing church deacon Thomas Rempel, Winnipegger Ross MacKay, and Tobias Tissen, the minister for the Church of God near Steinbach.

Both Tissen and his church have been fined numerous times for violating Manitoba’s public health orders.