Closing arguments underway in constitutional challenge over Manitoba’s public health orders
WINNIPEG -- A Manitoba judge is hearing closing arguments in the constitutional court case brought forward by a group of seven churches and three individuals challenging the province’s public health orders.
The applicants argue measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 implemented between November 2020 and the present day infringe on Charter rights to hold religious and public gatherings.
“There is a darkness choking our society,” Allison Pejovic, a lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued on behalf of the applicants.
Pejovic told the court the applicants have not come to court to deny the existence of COVID-19 or deny it has serious outcomes.
“They have come here armed with the science, seeking truth and justice,” Pejovic argued.
She told Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal churches have been forced to close their doors while film productions have been allowed, buses continue to run, and liquor stores have stayed stay open.
Pejovic argued the Charter, “is not simply being trampled. It is on fire.” She pointed to Tobias Tissen, a church minister near Steinbach and one of the applicants, threatened with jail for holding a drive-in church service.
“We are asking the court to push back against the public health orders,” Pejovic told Joyal. “They will never stop unless our judiciary puts a stop to them.”
She argued the orders are too broad and arbitrary because they lack a connection with their purpose to prevent serious outcomes and death.
“We’re not disputing that the hospitals were stressed,” Pejovic told the court.
She argued there is little evidence before the court regarding outdoor transmission.
“Yet they’ve banned outdoor gatherings. It is quite incredible actually,” Pejovic told Joyal. “Dr. Roussin ought to show the public the science before he makes these orders.”
Under the province’s current orders, gatherings on private property are restricted and indoor community, religious and cultural gatherings have been prohibited. Restaurants are limited to serving takeout and delivery and gyms and fitness centres have been forced to close. Retail stores have been reduced to 10 per cent capacity or a maximum of 100 people. Outdoor gatherings in public are limited to five people.
Chief Justice Joyal said in court, it is an important case.
“I think these are issues that are deserving of attention,” he told Pejovic during her arguments. “Whether I agree or not is a different question but that’s for my analysis.”
Justice Centre lawyer Jay Cameron told the court earlier bans on drive-in worship services singled out churches. He argued people were allowed to sit in their vehicles in a Wal-Mart or Costco parking lot and that the only thing that made worship services illegal is that they were occurring in a church parking lot.
What is communicated is that religious gatherings are so risky or so unwanted that there is even a risk to the community when people are sitting in a parking lot listening to a worship service with their window rolled up, Cameron told the court.
“That’s a distinction based on religion,” Cameron argued. “I don’t know how to classify it any other way.”
Lawyers for the province will be next to make submissions.
Arguments continue Wednesday afternoon.