A southern Manitoba church that was repeatedly ticketed for breaking public health orders on gatherings during the pandemic is being forced to pay $30,000, a judge has ruled.
Christy Schmidt, a deaconess and church board member from the Church of God (Restoration) in Sarto, Man., admitted in provincial court Thursday that the church is guilty of two counts of violating the Public Health Act in six gatherings from November 2020 to May 2021.
The church, which is about 15 kilometres south of Steinbach, was ticketed on a nearly monthly basis for violating the law, as members continued to meet for in-person services after the government restricted public gatherings in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, a Winnipeg courtroom heard.
"The aggravating factor in this case is the repeated nature of the behaviour.… It really boils down to [the church hosting] regular church services despite the prohibitions placed on them by the COVID prevention orders," Crown attorney Sean Sass said.
Court heard enforcement officers visited the church four times when public health orders restricted public gathering to no more than five people.
On those occasions, officials found dozens of cars in the parking lot and saw as many as 120 people leaving the services, several of which were streamed live on Facebook.
In early May 2021, when public health orders banned all indoor gatherings, enforcement officers saw at least 60 people entering the church, Sass said.
On May 23, the day after an order was put in place restricting church services to 10 per cent of normal occupancy or 50 people, whichever was lower, enforcement officials saw approximately 145 people entering the church.
Eight tickets related to 16 offences were issued to the church, defence lawyer Alex Steigerwald said.
"The church was put in a difficult position where they were essentially, from their religious standpoint, being forced to pick between government … orders and their faith, and ultimately it was a matter of faith which led them to continue to have their religious services, their worship services," he said.
The fine for the first count was set at $12,000, while the second is higher, at $18,000, and takes into account that the congregation continued to meet after being ticketed.
The fines were jointly recommended by both the Crown and defence lawyers and accepted by provincial judge Michael Clark.
"Those are fines that meet the sentencing principle of deterrence, that specifically this church will think twice if public orders are put in place, considering that these fines are significant to them," Clark said.
The church has seven years to pay the fines.
In June 2021, Church of God (Restoration) was slapped with an "information laid" charge for repeated offences. The province said at the time that it was up to the courts to determine the fine amount, but it could be as high as $1 million.
Neither the Crown nor the defence felt the charges merited such a big fine, especially because the church subsists mainly on donations from members, Steigerwald said.
"Finances, needless to say, are quite tight for the church," Steigerwald said.
Church leaders have been embroiled in court hearings regarding the public health orders throughout the pandemic.
Church of God Pastor Tobias Tissen was a vocal opponent of public health restrictions and was himself ticketed multiple times for violating public health orders.
In August, a judge fined Tissen and four others — Patrick Allard, Gerry Bohemier, Todd McDougall and Sharon Vickner — more than $100,000 in total for repeatedly breaking public health orders and inciting others to do so.
They were convicted of organizing, attending and speaking at anti-lockdown rallies across southern Manitoba.
The year before, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal rejected a court challenge launched by Tissen, the Church of God (Restoration) and six other churches, who had argued pandemic restrictions violated their charter-guaranteed rights of freedom of religion and expression.