A Winnipeg pastor is trying to understand why worship services are limited to 10 per cent.

Brennan Cattani is an Associate Pastor at Ness Avenue Baptist Church and lead planting pastor at Osborne Village Church. He says that he feels people of faith are being treated unfairly by the province, who is giving them the lowest capacity limit compared to others allowed to reopen on Friday.

"We feel the way the government has singled religious and faith-based gatherings out in this last round of restrictions is discriminatory and immoral."

brennan cattaniCattani says he has called and written his local MLA regarding the reopening of worship spaces.

The pastor feels the faith community is being singled out despite their efforts to follow the public health orders.

"As a church, first of all, we do not believe the government has the final authority on any of this stuff, however, we have been very happy to comply."

Cattani says when they were open, their church had a team of volunteers who make sure all of the government's recommendations were in place.  

The pastor says the latest capacity limit is "a step too far on behalf of the government."

Dr. Brent Roussin has previously stated that the health orders are targeting the virus, not activities.

roussinRoussin says regular in-person worship services are permitted to occur starting Friday, on a limited basis. He says if cases continue to lower Manitobans can expect more reopenings in three weeks. (Screenshot: Government of Manitoba/YouTube)

"We know that indoor, prologued contact is where this virus flourishes. And again, none of the orders that we do has been a reflection of people's hard work or a reflection on how important they think this is. It is a reflection on the virus."

The Chief Public Health Officer thanked worship communities, saying "we have had some great partnerships, some great stakeholders in the faith-based community to run things as safe as they possibly can."

One of Cattani's concerns is because the Public Health Orders have not been signed, he does not know how they are worded, making it difficult for him to know the details and plan.

Cattani called and wrote Minister Scott Fielding, the MLA in Ness Avenue Baptist Church's neighbourhood, with his concerns.

"What Minister Fielding said to me on the phone was that the reason for the added restriction for faith-based gathering is we would constitute something called prolonged exposure."

He is comparing sitting in a household bubble for an hour in a restaurant to worship space, saying the risk is the same but capacity limits are different. 

"It is codified, systemic discrimination against religious groups."

The pastor says during the phone call he was encouraged after learning restaurants are also considered a risk for prolonged exposure and are able to open at 25 per cent, but discouraged the same rules would not apply to worship spaces.

"The health orders, as it was reported, is limited to only when you would be holding a regular service and 10 per cent, and a restaurant, library, whatever, are limited to 25 per cent capacity with no max cap on attendance."

When the changes were initially proposed, Pastor Jason Foster from The Pas Christian Fellowship also compared the risk in restaurants and worship spaces.

"I think the church is able to open to 25 per cent as well in a safe manner," Foster says. "There is no difference being in the air of a restaurant than being in the air of a sanctuary, in my opinion."

When asked what the difference in risk was during Wednesday's press conference, Dr. Jazz Atwal responded by saying "sitting with your household bubble at home, those are those designated two individuals, that's what we have asked people to do. I think you are eluding to the fact that restaurants we have said the designated two won't be able to partake in those restaurant activities with the household, that is household only, and the reason is more on the enforcement side."

atwalDr. Jazz Atwal is Manitoba's Deputy Chief Public Health Officer. (Screenshot: Government of Manitoba/YouTube)

Atwal says "we do recognize that we need to open up slowly to mitigate risk, to mitigate cases, (and) to mitigate hospitalizations as well."

Cattani says faith-based groups have not been presented with any information to justify the lower capacity limit.

"There has been no numbers published. In fact, one group even went as far as to file a freedom of information request to access the number of covid related contact tracing or cases related to faith-based gatherings. And it was disproportionally low in faith-based gatherings compared to other sectors with prolonged exposure."

He says this, combined with the new orders, is why he feels they are being discriminated against by the government.

Other churches have brought forward a lawsuit, saying the Public Health Orders "are outside of the authority of Manitoba because law-making is in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Legislature." Gateway Bible Baptist Church, Pembina Valley Baptist Church, Redeeming Grace Bible Church, Grace Covenant Church, Slavic Baptist Church, Christian Church of Morden, Bible Baptist Church, a deacon, restaurant owners, and a previously-fined individual are part of the suit.

“Locking down the majority of a healthy society is not necessary to protect those most at risk from COVID-19. The lockdowns are a devastating society on multiple socio-economic and constitutional levels, and harming the well-being of citizens,” says Allison Pejovic, Staff Lawyer for the Justice Centre, the office representing the group.

A preliminary proceeding occurred Wednesday, and a full hearing is scheduled beginning April 19.