Manitoba minister says only God has authority to make people wear masks

A Manitoba minister says he can’t force his worshippers to follow public health orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, because only God has that authority.

Church of God Restoration minister Tobias Tissen told a Manitoba court Monday his church has allowed Sunday worship despite past and current health orders.

The court was shown a 10-minute video for a service from inside Tissen’s church in January, where he can be clearly seen, and no one was physically distancing or wearing a mask.

“We can’t force anyone to wear a mask,” Tissen said.

“We are not counting and we have no authority, scripturally based and based on Christian convictions, to limit anyone from coming to hear the word of God.”

In his church, which has the capacity for 140 people, no one is asked to wear a mask, he said.

Current restrictions limit those gatherings to 25 per cent or 10 people, whichever is smaller. Over the past several months, his church has been fined more than $40,000 for holding services contrary to public health orders.

Tissen’s church is one of seven rural Manitoba churches who are challenging the constitutional right of the province’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, to implement sweeping restrictions in the face of a health emergency.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents the churches, told a courtroom in February that Roussin’s orders are not debated, studied or open for public consultation.

Read more:
Manitoba churches question Dr. Roussin’s pandemic powers in court hearing

Roussin has been the medical face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba since the first case more than a year ago. Since then, he has issued numerous public health orders, including restrictions on retail and commercial businesses, public gatherings and faith-based congregations.

During a hearing on Feb. 9, the group argued Roussin’s public health orders and decisions were made without elected oversight.

“There is no evidence of any consultation, any advising of the house on behalf of the minister,” lawyer Jay Cameron told Chief Justice Glenn Joyal.

“So what it very much looks like is Dr. Roussin makes an order, the minister rubber-stamps it and it becomes law and it impacts over a million people.”

However, Joyal pushed back at the time, noting the government has engaged with Manitobans.

Read the constitutional challenge here:

View this document on Scribd

The centre’s lawyers represent Gateway Bible Baptist Church, Pembina Valley Baptist Church, Redeeming Grace Bible Church, Thomas Rempel, Grace Covenant Church, Slavic Baptist Church, Christian Church Of Morden, Bible Baptist Church, Ross MacKay and Tissen.

The constitutional challenge is the latest in a string of attempts by churches across the country to quash COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings. The Justice Centre has filed similar challenges in British Columbia and Alberta.

Hearing begins

Tissen was the first person to testify in what is expected to be an eight-day hearing, and told the court he was a speaker at a recent anti-mask rally at The Forks in Winnipeg.

Asked by prosecutor Denis Guenette if people adhered to physical distancing or wore a mask at the rallies he has attended with hundreds of people, Tissen said “I think some people have tried but it’s not always possible.”

The question was allowed, and Tissen admitted he attends rallies outside the province and does not isolate when he comes back to Manitoba.

After Tissen testified, he joined a demonstration happening outside the Law Court building, where more than 100 people gathered to protest masks, gathering sizes and retail restrictions. Health orders restrict public outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

Court also heard from Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford University Medical School who has become known for speaking against lockdown measures in the United States. He has also criticized chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci’s support of restrictions.

He provided an affidavit to court for the churches saying governments could have less intrusive restrictions.

Anti-mask demonstrators at the Manitoba Law Courts building Monday.

Anti-mask demonstrators at the Manitoba Law Courts building Monday.

Scott Duarte/Global News

Bhattacharya, who testified by video from California, was questioned about his expertise and whether it should be applied to the case.

Heather Leonoff, a lawyer for the province, pointed out that while Bhattacharya has a PhD in economics and a medical degree, he is not licensed to practice medicine.

The often-confrontational cross-examination went through Bhattacharya’s published research and Leonoff questioned whether he had any specific understanding of the situation in Manitoba, specifically with COVID-19 outcomes among Indigenous people.

Bhattacharya was also questioned about his argument that asymptomatic spread is rare and that that’s a reason for why restrictions should be loosened.

The hearing will continue Tuesday.

A lawyer for the province said in February there are safeguards to prevent abuse of power, including all public health orders must be signed off by the health minister and meet the threshold that there is a serious or immediate threat to public health.

Roussin has said he will not comment on the case as it is before the courts.

In December, Joyal rejected a case brought by Springs Church in Manitoba to hold drive-in services while there were restrictions on public gatherings and in-person religious events.

That church faced more than $32,000 in fines for services at the time of the hearing.

Drive-in church services are now allowed under the province’s health orders.

Manitoba health officials announced 251 new COVID-19 cases and one death Monday after four deaths and 554 new cases were reported over the weekend.

Since March 2020, 979 Manitobans with COVID-19 have died and 39,524 people have fallen ill to the virus.

— With files from Brittany Greenslade and The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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