A Winnipeg church has been fined $9,000 after it admitted a much-criticized graduation ceremony held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic violated a public health order banning indoor gatherings.
Springs Church pleaded guilty Monday to one count of violating the Public Health Act.
"By resolving it in this manner, the church has chosen not to advance a constitutional challenge with respect to the subject of public health orders" and the charter right to freedom of assembly, the church’s lawyer, Eric Wach, told provincial court Judge Stacy Cawley at a sentencing hearing Monday.
A representative of the church did not attend court or participate in the hearing remotely.
The church was charged with violating the health act after it hosted an indoor graduation ceremony for Springs College students on May 20, 2021.
The church and church leaders Leon and Zachary Fontaine faced additional charges and tickets that were stayed Monday as part of a plea bargain, Crown attorney Sean Sass told court.
"There are some evidentiary issues the Crown was dealing with," Sass said. "All of the evidence in this case came from public social media. There was no actual investigation done other than looking online. There were no investigators on the ground, in the church, at the ceremony, so that may have created an issue."
Springs Church promoted the event as a "virtual graduation" with accommodations made for family and friends to watch the ceremony remotely from their cars in the parking lot of the church, Sass said.
"However, all of the grads were in a gathering that was prohibited by the public health orders at the time," he said. "This was a graduation ceremony being held when there were no graduation ceremonies being allowed across the province."
The church quickly posted pictures of the ceremony on its website and social media, prompting public health officers to investigate, Sass said.
“This was a graduation ceremony being held when there were no graduation ceremonies being allowed across the province.” – Crown attorney Sean Sass
One picture posted online showed 18 students standing on or next to a stage, all of them unmasked.
"To their credit, Springs Church has plead guilty, they have accepted responsibility for their actions," Sass said. "Since that date, there have been no further allegations of non-compliance with any COVID prevention orders. We think this fine will achieve deterrence… and I think simply having the charge imposed on them deterred them as well."
Gathering restrictions were put in place for the protection of all Manitobans, Cawley said.
"Obviously, many young Manitobans were deprived of the opportunity to enjoy an indoor graduation ceremony in compliance with the public health orders," she said.
A call to the office of Leon Fontaine, senior pastor and college co-president, was not returned Tuesday. At the time, Fontaine said all 18 student participants were part of the same cohort from orientation to graduation. All were physically distanced on the stage and in compliance with public health orders, he said.
The church was handed five fines of $5,000 each for holding drive-in services in November 2020 while Leon and Zachary Fontaine received six $1,296 fines. All charges were stayed as part of Monday’s plea bargain.
News of the graduation was widely denounced at the time, including by former church member and provincial Families Minister Rochelle Squires.
"Everyone has a duty to do their part and keep one another safe. Not only is this risky behaviour but also sends a wrong message to our youth," tweeted Squires, MLA for Riel.
“Everyone has a duty to do their part and keep one another safe. Not only is this risky behaviour but also sends a wrong message to our youth.” – Families Minister Rochelle Squires
After the Free Press reported on the graduation ceremony last year, Springs Church member and Health Minister Audrey Gordon took to social media to say she was "very disappointed" to hear about the event "that was held in clear violation of our public health orders." At the time, she declined to comment while the event was under investigation.
On Tuesday, after the church pleaded guilty and was fined, the minister avoided questions about it. The Free Press sent the health minister an interview request, asking her if she felt conflicted about being a member of a church that’s run afoul of public health orders.
Gordon was not made available for comment. Instead, her press secretary responded with a statement he said to attribute to Manitoba Health: "Our government encourages all Manitobans to follow public health recommendations by continuing to practice social distancing and staying home when you are sick."
— with files from Carol Sanders
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.