A Manitoban pastor says that he wants churches "to be able to gather in person without fear of penalty," and has launched a petition in hopes of getting the government to loosen COVID restrictions.

Eric Honsberger, The Lead Pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church in Steinbach, is calling on the provincial government to allow church congregations to use their buildings again. Saying he's not wanting to create a spectacle or garner negative publicity as others with similar perspectives have done, Honsberger launched a digital petition last week on Wednesday in partnership with church leaders from Altona, Beausejour, and Morden.

Now live for just over a week, the document has gained over 4,000 signatures from those who believe assembling is a vital part of Christian life despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

“It’s intended to be quite a broad campaign,” says Honsberger who hopes a wide variety of believers will find their motives agreeable. “The gathering of churches in Manitoba has been either prohibited or significantly limited since March of 2020 and we want to emphasize that biblical and historical Christian worship includes in-person gatherings for the purposes of hearing the word of God preached, singing together, and practicing the Lord’s Supper and Baptism together.”

Honsberger’s suggestion is not that all churches immediately fling their doors wide open to everyone, but that each church should be responsible for assessing the COVID-19 risk in their own community and making their own decision on how to wisely proceed. The government, he says, should not be allowed to continue restricting religious freedoms as they are outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the most recent Engage Manitoba survey, which was published early last week, only 29 per cent of roughly 67,500 participants identified “the ability to attend, in person, the house of worship of their choice” as a matter of great importance. To many, that statistic will seem meagre at best, and that is Honsberger’s concern.

“One of the reasons for our petition is because we see the province making too much of that statistic,” he says. “I think they are preloading to continue to restrict the church gatherings by pointing to this comparatively low number but I don’t think, in real terms, it is that low compared to how many people would actually be attending church.”

Keeping in mind that regular churchgoers make up less than half of Manitoba’s population, Honsberger says that statistic suddenly becomes more significant. He notes nearly 20,000 of those surveyed did highlight church attendance as very important and when you examine that number in the context of those whom it directly impacts it is rather large.

“Really, the question is: can we run the whole of society based on the risk of one single virus? Our contention would be that we cannot continue to do that.”

The petition will remain live online for several more days, but Honsberger says his goal is to get it in front of Premier Brian Pallister before the next changes to the provincial public health orders are finalized.