Only God has the authority to restrict church gatherings, a Steinbach area minister told a court hearing Monday for seven Manitoba churches fighting provincial pandemic restrictions limiting their right to assembly.
"That is God’s jurisdiction," said Church of God (Restoration) minister Tobias Tissen. "I don’t have the authority from God to do that."
Tissen, who, along with his church, has been fined several times for disobeying provincial public health orders. He was the first witness to testify at the scheduled two-week hearing in Winnipeg.
Tissen and the churches, as well as a deacon and a man ticketed for attending a Steinbach protest rally, are being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Calgary-based advocacy group which has launched similar court challenges in B.C. and Alberta.
Church gatherings in Manitoba are currently restricted to 10 people, or 25 per cent of capacity, whichever is lower, with everyone required to wear a mask.
During cross examination by provincial government lawyer Denis Guenette, court was shown video of a Church of God (Restoration) service recorded Jan. 31, a time when in-person church services were banned.
Steinbach-area church choir, religious groups, out-of-province speakers draw defiant crowd outside Winnipeg courthouseClick to Expand
Posted: 6:28 PM May. 3, 2021
Undaunted by Monday afternoon's overcast chill, a choir from the Church of God Restoration near Steinbach stood unmasked on the back steps of the Manitoba Law Courts, belting out hymns to a large crowd gathered closely together on the lawn below.
"We are the church that can't be defeated," the choir sang, as behind the courthouse walls, the Church of God and other religious groups waged a constitutional challenge against the Manitoba government over pandemic public-health measures, arguing restrictions on church gatherings amount to an overstep of charter rights.
The video showed approximately 60 churchgoers in the pews and a youth choir of 38. No one appeared to be wearing a mask or socially distancing.
"You would agree on that day churches were still required to be closed?" Guenette asked Tissen.
"Required by man, allowed by God," Tissen replied.
In a fiery address, pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt railed against the provincial health orders.
"Caesar thinks he can tell us how close we can be to each other," Hildebrandt said on the video. "Caesar thinks you have too many rights.
"We are here to fight for God," Hildebrandt said. "We are here to defend the vulnerable."
In another clip, Tissen addressed the congregation. "Thank the Lord that we have our priorities straight… and let’s keep it that way, no matter what the cost."
Tissen said church leaders did not require attendees to wear a mask ("We can’t force anyone to wear a mask"), or sit only with members of their household ("They have to voluntarily observe... we can’t enforce that") and made no effort to limit attendance ("We are not counting and we have no authority to restrict anyone from coming to hear the word of God").
Tissen admitted to participating in several recent protest rallies, including one at The Forks on April 25 that attracted several hundred unmasked protesters, and another large rally in Edmonton.
When Guenette asked Tissen if he self-isolated upon returning from out of province, his lawyer Jared Brown objected, arguing it would open Tissen up to self-incrimination.
"They are challenging the health orders and we are trying to establish whether they are observing the health orders," Guenette said when asked to explain the relevance of the question.
"(Tissen) has demonstrated that he is not going to be complying with the rules, whatever they are."
Satisfied by Justice Glenn Joyal his answer would not subject him to later prosecution, Tissen said he did not self-isolate.
Fifty-seven members of the public were allowed to watch the hearing remotely, more than would be allowed to attend most courts during non-pandemic times, Joyal noted earlier in the proceeding.
"I understand there is some agitation about the degree to which members of the public would have access to this hearing," he said. "I would be very disappointed and in fact somewhat irritated by any suggestion… that members of the public are not welcome to this hearing."
As the hearing resumed in the afternoon, a boisterous protest rally attracting more than 100 people began outside, coincidentally directly across and within earshot of the courtroom hearing the legal challenge.
Several speakers, including Tissen and others from out of province, decried the provincial rules regarding mask wearing and limited gathering sizes in churches.
— with files from Julia-Simone Rutgers
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.