The Church of God at Steinbach in Manitoba, Canada, received a $5,000 fine for violating COVID restrictions by meeting in person on Nov. 22. But the churchgoers decided that they would not be deterred from coming together, and on Sunday they held a drive-in service.
But the police wouldn't let churchgoers into the parking lot — even though would-be attendees had been instructed to stay in their car with the windows up, the Christian Post reported. So the faithful lined the highway in front of the church.
After receiving the maximum fine allowed for holding an in-person service that violated Manitoba's ban on groups larger than five people, the Church of God in rural Steinbach, Manitoba, said it would not stop offering worship gatherings for the faithful.
In a Nov. 23 press release posted to Facebook, Pastor Henry Hildebrandt said that churches "have been singled out" in the COVID lockdowns and not given the same treatment as pot shops, liquor stores, and fast-food joints that have been considered "essential." This violation of the churchgoers' "right to religious freedom and peaceful assembly in the Canadian Constitution" is not something Christians follow in "blind obedience," the pastor said.
"We are not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment," Hildebrandt wrote. "Christians have always believed that their faith and the reasonable expression of that faith is essential to their mental health and well-being and that being arbitrarily separated from each other is detrimental to them."
"On Sunday morning, people in this province interacted at Walmart, Costco, and other retailers," the pastor continued. "The same thing happened at the local liquor store, cannabis dispensaries, and the list goes on. Yet, it is our faith community that is singled out for public criticism, media attention, and visits by the RCMP, Manitoba Public Health and local bylaw enforcement. There must be an allowable expression of faith that is deemed essential while we are allowing the sale of products at establishments that exist solely for the sale of alcohol, coffee, donuts, cannabis, and fast food."
In light of the government's crackdown on in-person gathering inside the church building, the church announced it would be holding a drive-in service in its parking lot on Nov. 29 — as did other churches in Manitoba.
Not content with stopping indoor services, the provincial government declared that even drive-in services were verboten.
But the Church of God at Steinbech was not to be deterred. In a Saturday morning Facebook post, the church announced that the planned drive-in service was still on. The church instructed those who planned to attend to stay in their cars with the windows up. A subsequent post told worshippers to tune to 88.5 FM to listen to the service.
"Tomorrow morning we will have the safest parking lot in Manitoba," the post said. "Keep your windows rolled up and stay in your vehicles. This won't be like the parking lots of Costco, Walmart, and the government-owned liquor stores where people freely mingle. Make no mistake, this is not about a virus."
On Sunday morning, parishioners found dozens of police vehicles lined up along the highway outside the church and blocking the entrance to the parking lot.
A video shot as police barricaded the church entrance showed a growing line of cars along the highway being prevented from entering the parking lot.
The church later posted photos showing the highway jammed with cars of people taking part in the drive-in service while parked along the side of the road.
What did the government say about bans on drive-in services?
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, told the CBC that the government has several tools it can use to enforce public health restrictions.
"If somebody was undertaking activity that we felt put the health of the public at risk, we could issue a health hazard order that would require an organization to close," Roussin said, according to the CBC. "There could be continued fines, there could be prosecution under the Public Health Act. So those are just the various options available to to enforce things."
According to Roussin, people just need to stay home because even drive-in services can be dangerous.
"We know there are a lot of things that are very important to people, but we've heard from our health care providers, we've seen the numbers, so we are asking Manitobans for a relatively short period of time to take these steps to stay home and limit any type of gatherings," Roussin said Monday, according to Canada's Global News.
"Are people going to be in their car? Is that all household people in there? Does anyone need to use their washroom during this time? There are risks involved with it," Roussin added.