'Church is definitely an essential service': Prince Albert pastor fights $14K COVID-19 fine
PRINCE ALBERT -- The Prince Albert Full Gospel Outreach Centre is heading to court to fight a $14,000 fine issued for violating COVID-19 public health orders.
A Saskatchewan Health Authority public health officer handed over the ticket to Pastor Vern Temple in October. The fine was issued for non-compliance to public health orders and places of worship guidelines during a 100-day revival series.
The event was connected to 86 first and second generation COVID-19 cases in 17 different communities in the province.
Temple said COVID-19 restrictions show an inequity towards religious organizations. He questioned why the government allows large groups of people to shop at a liquor store, while religious services are limited to 30. At the time of the fine, places of worship were allowed up to 150 people while following public health measures.
“I think the government is not seeing the significance and the importance of the church,” said Temple.
"The church is definitely an essential service. (It’s) important not just in the past, but even now with the pandemic happening and people in isolation, it's even more important now."
Temple said the pandemic is hurting people’s spiritual health, not just physical health. People don’t just go to health care facilities to receive help, he said.
He said churches, along with all other religious organizations, should be treated as essential, no different than grocery stores.
“I think my spiritual life is more important than my physical life. You can’t live without food. A spiritual person will take the same perspective that I really can’t do well in life and I may not even live long without spiritual food.”
Calgary-based lawyer Sarah Miller will be representing the Full Gospel Outreach Centre in court. She said the health authority has not disclosed why the fine was issued and likely won’t before their first court date scheduled for Mar. 8.
Miller said their defence will involve Charter rights to freedom of religion and association.
“The outreach provides valuable community services for marginalized and indigent people in Prince Albert. The voluntary payment that the Saskatchewan Health Authority selected to fine the outreach is $14,000. This is an incredible amount for the SHA to expect such an organization to pay. Obviously the outreach has limited resources,” she said in an emailed statement.
“On the information we have currently, it appears that the SHA has overreached in this case and the fine does not appear to be an appropriate or fair exercise of their authority.”
“It is believed that the Summons arose from a photo which was shared online,” added Miller.
A photo posted on Facebook in September shows a group of people who appear not to be appropriately physical distancing. Temple said further into the series, they moved to a larger room to space people out.
After the fine was announced, Premier Scott Moe tweeted “While this fine is necessary, we don’t want people to be fined. We just want them to follow public health guidelines.”
Temple said the church provides a sense of belonging, shelter and food to people on the streets. When they were ordered to temporarily close, he said it put a void in their lives.
“That was the disappointing thing, was that I could see transformation taking place in these people’s lives,” said Temple.
“They were coming out every night, and a little bit more sober every night and even coming completely sober for several nights … and then it was just gone.”
Temple said the Full Gospel Outreach Centre has reopened, hosting about three services a week. He said they’re following COVID-19 prevention measures, including physical distancing, wearing masks and sanitizing.