Saskatoon church continues services despite previous fine for breaking gathering limit

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The congregation at Saskatoon’s Fellowship Baptist Church held a service on Sunday, and there are questions as to whether they violated public health orders designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

On Sunday, Global News saw 34 people either enter the building or on the church’s livestream. Neighbours said congregants had been arriving before Global News arrived. Current provincial health guidelines restrict religious ceremonies to 30 people, not including clergy or staff. Global News can’t be sure how many of the people who entered the building were staff or clergy.

The Saskatchewan Government fined the church $14,000 on March 11 for previously exceeding gathering limits.

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Most people attending on Sunday morning, families with children, used the back door.

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The parking lot was largely empty but several neighbours said most of the cars on the adjacent street belonged to churchgoers. Global News saw several people park nearby and walk into the church.

When asked if he was worried about COVID-19, one congregant responded by saying, “why should I?”

Another attendee also said he wasn’t concerned.

“I’m pretty young and there’s a pretty good chance I’d survive it if I did get it,” he said.

When asked if he thought he would spread it to others, he replied, “I don’t think I have it.”

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Global News tried contacting the church several times over several days. No one responded to multiple calls or emails and no one opened the door before the church service began.

Church services across the country have been superspreader events. Dozens of people were infected at a service that lasted several days at Full Gospel Outreach in Prince Albert in December.

Other congregations have resisted. Alberta RCMP arrested one person at GraceLife Church, outside Edmonton, in April.

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Last week, the Saskatoon church displayed a notice on its front door that said any police “or any other party acting on behalf of the Government” could not enter.

“If found trespassing, you will be prosecuted under the applicable Trespass Act. If found to intend to disrupt religious proceedings or services, you will be charged…”

In January, the pastor, Steve Flippin, posted a blog called “Imagine closing the church.”

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In it, he argued a church’s role in a crisis is to meet and support people.

“The church is far more important than the hospital,” he wrote.

“The hospital only provides healing for this life, but offers nothing for the reality of the life to come.”

On Sunday, the website said, “yes we are meeting for in person (sic) worship at 10:30am Sunday mornings! All choosing to worship are most welcome to join us.”

A lawyer said the health guidelines do violate the congregants right to worship but said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows it.

“Under Section 1 of our Charter, every right in Canada can be infringed,” Brian Pfefferle said, speaking over the phone.

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“And there’s often a misunderstanding that, just because your liberty has been infringed, it doesn’t mean you automatically win.”

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He said the issue was “fertile ground” for a constitutional challenge and added that any infringement of rights and freedoms needs serious debate.

The Charter states that rights and freedoms are “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and just society.”

Pfefferle — who said he is religious and now attends an online service every Sunday — told Global News the courts must decide what is justifiable.

He said the right to worship in groups will be weighed against what he described as “the unprecedented death and unprecedented carnage” wrought by COVID-19.

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