Supreme Court declines to hear constitutional challenge to gathering restrictions

Gateway Bible Baptist Church et al. v. Manitoba et al.

Supreme Court declines to hear constitutional challenge to gathering restrictions

Gateway Bible Baptist Church et al. v. Manitoba et al.

The Justice Centre is disappointed that the Supreme Court of Canada has decided not to hear the appeal of the challenge to Manitoba’s lockdown restrictions. The decision was announced on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

The Leave to Appeal application, under the name Gateway Bible Baptist Church et al. v. Manitoba et al., was filed on September 18, 2023. Five Manitoba churches, a pastor and a deacon asked the Supreme Court of Canada to hear their appeal of the lower courts’ dismissal of their constitutional challenge to closures of churches and restrictions on outdoor gatherings during Covid lockdowns in late 2020 and 2021. Included in the application was protester Ross MacKay, who had been ticketed and who was seeking to appeal the lower courts’ dismissal of his constitutional challenge to the outdoor gathering limits.

Through public health orders, Manitoba had closed churches while permitting businesses to continue to operate. Taxis, in-person university classes, film and tv productions, law offices, and liquor stores were allowed to remain open. The Winnipeg Jets could meet and train indoors with their extended crew, and summer Olympic competitors were allowed to train indoors. Outdoor gatherings were reduced to no more than five people, while at the same time hundreds of people could legally gather indoors at big box stores.

The initial case was heard in May 2021 before the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench. The province did not produce any evidence that Covid spreads outdoors, or that outdoor gatherings were risky activities. That hearing did produce a significant admission from a government expert witness, Chief Microbiologist and Laboratory Specialist Dr. Jared Bullard, who, under questioning from Justice Centre lawyers, admitted that 56 percent of positive Covid cases were not infectious. The hearing was also notable for the Applicants’ expert report and testimony from world-renowned Stanford Professor, epidemiologist Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, co-author of The Great Barrington Declaration. Dr. Bhattacharya has moved on to even greater international fame as one of the litigants in a lawsuit, Missouri v. Biden, against the U.S federal government for medical censorship uncovered in The Twitter Files investigation.

The Manitoba Court of King’s Bench ruled that the government’s public health officials should not be “second guessed” and that the government need not meet a high threshold of providing persuasive evidence to demonstrably justify that violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were reasonable. The Manitoba Court of King’s Bench did not order the unsuccessful Applicants to pay court costs, finding there to be significant public interest in having this case adjudicated.

In December 2022, the Applicants appealed. The appeal was dismissed by the Manitoba Court of Appeal in June 2023.

In the Application for Leave to Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, lawyers provided by the Justice Centre argued that the case raised issues of national importance. For instance:

  1. How are constitutionally protected activities to be juridically measured against comparable non-constitutionally protected activities? What is the proper approach to the minimal impairment stage of the Oakes analysis with respect to public health orders that fully prohibit Charter-protected activities (e.g. In- person religious worship) while permitting comparable non-Charter-protected activities (e.g. In-person university classes, film and television productions, indoor team-training for the Winnipeg Jets, etc.).
  2. Does reliance on the “precautionary principle” satisfy the state’s onus under Charter section 1 to provide “cogent and persuasive” evidence to justify Charter-infringing measures?

The Applicants’ legal team believed the case was critically important, as it could have served as guidance for governments in crafting public health measures on efforts needed to accommodate Charter-protected rights and freedoms.

Allison Pejovic, lawyer for the Applicants, stated, “Our clients are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear their appeal. It was past time to have a conversation with Canada’s highest court about whether Charter-protected rights such as rights to worship and assemble ought to be prioritized over economic interests, such as ensuring that the Winnipeg Jets could practice indoors and that movie productions could continue. It was also critical to hear from the Court on the importance of respecting the Charter during a declared ’emergency’. Governments urgently needed the Supreme Court of Canada’s guidance as to the degree to which they should accommodate Charter rights during a future pandemic or other emergency proclaimed by government. Leaving that issue undecided at the highest level is a grave injustice for all Canadians.”

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