Springs Church is responding to public outrage over a graduation ceremony held for the Springs College class of 2021.

Photos of the ceremony -- held on Thursday, May 20 -- were posted to the Springs Church Instagram account, showing more than a dozen unmasked individuals in formalwear standing on a stage. Behind the people, a screen backdrop reads "Springs College graduation 2021."

Public backlash quickly arose online, prompting the church to remove the post congratulating the graduates from their account. Screenshots of the post, however, have continued to circulate online, drawing both criticism of and support for the church.

Now, Springs Church senior pastor Leon Fontaine has released a statement about the situation, which he calls a "misunderstanding.

"Over the last 36 hours, there has been a lot of misrepresentations and outright false statements made about the Springs College drive-in graduation," Fontaine says in a statement released Saturday by Springs Church.

Fontaine says that throughout the pandemic, Springs Church has taken public health orders "very seriously" and "has done everything in our power in the last 14 months to comply.

"Countless hours are spent interpreting and implementing new weekly Manitoba Health orders. Members of the public were not put at any risk at any time as a result of the virtual college graduation," Fontaine continues.

Springs College is a full-time program for young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, offering courses in biblical studies, leadership, and management. The program also has ministry, media, creative, and worship streams for students to explore and develop their passions.

Church says grad was order-compliant

According to order nine of the public health orders under The Public Health Act posted to the Government of Manitoba's website, post-secondary educational institutions including colleges may be open and provide online and remote instruction. They can also provide in-person instruction, providing occupancy of classrooms or other places of instruction is 50 per cent or less of the room's capacity and the total number of students within a classroom or area of instruction does not exceed 25.

The orders also stipulate that where reasonably possible, measures to ensure a two-metre distance between all persons must be implemented in classrooms and areas of instructions, as well as common indoor areas of a college, including libraries, bookstores, dining halls, and dormitories.

In his statement, Fontaine maintains these orders were followed over the past nine months of the program.

"This class from Orientation to Graduation was 18 students, well under the 25 limit. These students remained physically distanced and remained in the same cohort throughout the school year," Fontaine says.

Fontaine explains that on the last days of their classes, those same 18 students used one of Springs' television studios with the doors closed and locked to the public to film commencement proceedings to be broadcast to the church's drive-in parking lot.

"I want to emphasize that this was a closed set and at no time were members of the public in attendance to this TV shoot inside our studio," Fontaine says. "All attenders to the event from the public were watching it outside in their vehicles in our parking lot on our LED screen, in compliance with the Manitoba Health Orders."

Students were reportedly seated and physically distanced throughout the commencement shoot and were staggered to ensure physical distancing when called to the stage at the end as the photos posted online showed.

"Unfortunately, the pictures that were posted did not show this physical separation well," Fontaine says.

Fontaine also says there was no requirement for students to wear masks during classes throughout the year nor for their final photo because they were physically distanced as a cohort group.

"Unfortunately, some pictures with no context led to a lot of misunderstanding," Fontaine says.

The statement concludes with the pastor offering his congratulations to the graduates of the program. "I want to let the graduates know how proud I am of them and excited for their future."

Political repercussions

Families Minister Rochelle Squires shared a screenshot of the original Springs Church post about the graduation to Twitter Saturday morning to denounce the proceedings.

"As a former member of this church, I am deeply disappointed that this event took place against public health orders," Squires writes. "Everyone has a duty to do their part and keep one another safe. Not only is this risky behaviour but also sends a wrong message to our youth."

The Progressive Conservative government's minister for mental health Audrey Gordon also commented on the ceremony on Twitter.

"Anyone who chooses not to follow public health orders is disrespecting their family, their friends, their community and the front line health care workers who are doing everything in their power to care for those in need," Gordon writes.

On Facebook, Gordon says several posts have suggested she was in attendance at the Springs College graduation but says she has not yet seen evidence to support these claims.

"I have read several posts stating that I was present at the Springs graduation ceremony. To my knowledge, no evidence has been provided to substantiate this claim," Gordon says. "The day of the graduation ceremony, the Legislative Assembly sat from 1:30 p.m. to approximately 10:45 p.m. All 57 MLAs were present for the House session, including myself. This information can be easily verified by the public."

Gordon has previously said she is a member of Springs Church.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister did not offer a comment on the Springs College graduation ceremony during a Saturday morning press conference on May 22, saying he had only just become aware of the situation.

No stranger to controversy

This incident is not the first time Springs Church has made news headlines during the pandemic.

The church, located on Lagimodiere Boulevard near Fermor Avenue, was fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services in November 2020. The services were held in the church's parking lot and were deemed to be in violation of public health orders at the time.

Springs was subsequently denied an application in December to allow the church to hold drive-in services and an interim stay of public health orders prohibiting in-person faith gatherings by Court of Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal, who ruled the orders were necessary for public safety.