A Winnipeg church that has repeatedly flouted public health orders appears to have held an in-person graduation ceremony without masks — in violation of Manitoba's current pandemic restrictions.
Springs Church posted a series of photos on Instagram Friday, one of which shows more than a dozen people dressed in formal attire standing on a stage.
It's not clear when or where the photos were taken, but a backdrop behind the people in the photo reads "Springs College Graduation 2021."
"We are so proud of this years @springscollege graduates!" the now deleted post reads.
According to its Instagram page, the college is a full-time program for students age 18 to 25. The college offers a biblical studies program, and a leadership and management program, its website says.
Screengrabs of the pictures continue to circulate on social media, prompting criticism of the church.
Current public health orders, in effect since May 9, prohibit all indoor religious, cultural and community gatherings in the province.
Manitobans have been urged to stay home and avoid gatherings, as the province grapples with a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases during its third pandemic wave.
PC minister says 'no evidence' she was at grad ceremony
Audrey Gordon, the Progressive Conservative government's minister for mental health, posted a statement on her own Twitter account Saturday afternoon about the Springs Church post.
Gordon has previously said she is a member of the church.
"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 wrote.
On Facebook, Gordon wrote that several posts have claimed she was present at the ceremony, but to her knowledge no evidence was presented to substantiate the claim.
The Legislative Assembly sat from 1:30 p.m. to about 10:45 p.m. the day of the graduation and all 57 MLAs, including Gordon, were present for the session, she wrote, adding that the information could verified by the public.
CBC News contacted Gordon's spokesperson for clarification. The spokesperson said the minister's statement was "very clear," but confirmed she did not attend any in-person ceremony at Springs nor any related events before or after.
The spokesperson would not say whether Gordon was still a member of Springs Church, saying her personal faith background is irrelevant.
Please click on the image below to see my full statement regarding the graduation ceremony at Springs College. <a href="https://t.co/oxvZwZqD22">pic.twitter.com/oxvZwZqD22</a>
Premier not commenting
When asked about Springs Church during an unrelated press conference late Saturday morning, Premier Brian Pallister said he had only just become aware of the ceremony.
The premier said if there were violations, there should be consequences, but declined to offer further comment.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires, however, took to Twitter on Saturday morning to denounce the gathering.
"As a former member of this church I am deeply disappointed that this event took place against public health orders," she wrote.
"Everyone has a duty to do their part and keep one another safe. Not only is this risky behaviour but [it] also sends a wrong message to our youth."
CBC News has sent messages to Springs Church for comment but has not received a response.
A spokesperson for the province would not say Saturday whether Springs was facing any fines.
History of flouting public health orders
Springs Church, which is located on Lagimodiere Boulevard just north of Fermor Avenue in Winnipeg, has a history of breaking public health orders during the pandemic.
As of last December, the church and two of its pastors had been fined more than $32,000 for allowing drive-in services in its parking lot, in violation of provincial public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
The church also went to court late last year, seeking an application that would allow it to hold services in its parking lot and asking for an interim stay of a provincial public health order prohibiting in-person religious gatherings.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal ruled against the church, saying the orders "necessarily restrict rights … in order to prevent death, illness and the overwhelming of the public health system in Manitoba."
Dozens of Manitoba clergy have also spoken out against Springs in the past, saying that congregation's actions are not in line with Christian teachings to love your neighbour.
'Slap in the face' to other graduating Manitobans
Many took to social media to chastise Springs, including parent Jodi Lee from Portage la Prairie. Instead of a ceremony, her son will likely receive his diploma in the mail.
"I showed him the pictures and he just shook his head and he said, 'How is this fair mom?'"
"It's just a blatant slap in the face to every other grad," Lee said.
"There seems to be different rules for different people, and just a complete disregard for the health orders that we're all trying to follow."
Darren Day, a University of Winnipeg student, grew up in an Evangelical church in Winkler, Man.
"There was a time of life where I might have done something like that. I might have been like, 'Screw this, church is more important. I should be with my community,' Day said.
He said what Springs is doing contradicts Christian values.
"It shows, unfortunately, a disconnect to what's going on, a lack of compassion, and also maybe a bit of privilege," he said.
Winnipeg City councillor Markus Chambers said the province needs to investigate and issue fines.
"For there to be such defiance, I don't know how they're justifying it," he said.
Springs Church responds
Spring Church pastor Leon Fontaine released a written and video statement late Saturday night saying the graduation photos had led to "misunderstandings."
During the last days of classes Thursday, the 18 graduating students went into a TV studio on campus and taped the commencement proceedings, Fontaine said.
The video was broadcasted on a screen in the church's parking lot, where people could watch from their cars.
Students were staggered and physically distanced throughout the ceremony, and therefore didn't need to wear masks, the pastor said.
"Unfortunately, the pictures that were posted did not show this physical separation well," Fontaine said.
In Manitoba, all indoor religious gatherings have been prohibited since May 9. Masks are required inside educational facilities under current Code Red restrictions.
Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools in Winnipeg have been in remote learning since May 12, and post-secondary institutions have been mostly learning online this school year.
Private indoor gatherings have also been limited to only household members since late April.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or firstname.lastname@example.org
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