After defying Alberta’s COVID-19 rules and Alberta Health Services orders for several weeks in a row, the pastor of a Christian church on the outskirts of Edmonton was arrested by RCMP after this past Sunday’s service.
GraceLife Church of Edmonton is located just outside the city limits, on Highway 627 in Parkland County.
RCMP have monitored Sunday morning activity at the church for several weekends in a row, after Alberta Health Services issued a work order on Dec. 17, 2020 — which was escalated to a closure order at the end of January.
The parking lot next to the Edmonton Corn Maze has been consistently full and the church has welcomed members into the building every Sunday in recent weeks, even after being ordered closed for not wearing masks, ignoring social distancing and allowing hundreds of people inside — in violation of the current 15 per cent of total capacity rules.
The services had 290 and 300 congregants, with video of the services showing no masks.
Last month, RCMP said its role was to observe and ensure a peaceful interaction because AHS is the lead agency on the case.
Since early December, RCMP have been working with AHS in an ongoing investigation into the activities surrounding the non-compliance of the church, a news release Monday said.
GraceLife Church is led by Pastor James Coates. On Sunday, he was arrested by RCMP and charged in contravention of Section 73(1) of the Public Health Act, for being over capacity and failing to adhere to physical distancing requirements.
It came after RCMP and an AHS public health inspector attended the church and determined it was over double the current restricted capacity level.
As a matter of respect, the church proceedings were not interrupted by the RCMP, and Coates was cooperative with the RCMP following the end of the service, the RCMP news release said.
“There are many different discussions and considerations at play in relation to the GraceLife Church and their non compliance,” Parkland RCMP detachment Insp. Mike Lokken said in a statement.
“We have ensured that the church is well aware of the conditions that they need to follow and they have been afforded repeated opportunities to comply.
“In collaboration with AHS, we have now followed up with escalated enforcement.”
Coates was released with conditions and ordered to attend in Stony Plain Provincial Court on March 31. The arrest comes after a $1,200 violation ticket was issued to him in December.
Global News has reached out to GraceLife church several times for comment, but a response has never been received.
An undated notice appeared on the church’s website a few days ago, downplaying the pandemic and discussing the importance of civil liberties and freedoms — saying the negative effects of the government lockdown measures on society far surpass the effects of COVID-19.
“We are gravely concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties.
“By the time the so-called ‘pandemic’ is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent,” part of the 1,600-word statement said.
The church went on to say it didn’t believe its actions would contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
The letter also noted the church is following the words of Premier Jason Kenney, who it said has previously downplayed the seriousness of the virus and likened it to influenza.
Kenney, however, has been clear that the novel coronavirus, particularly new variants, are a clear danger that if left unchecked could overwhelm the health system. He has regularly chastised as irresponsible any faith-based organizations and businesses that violate the rules.
A statement was released Tuesday by 28 community members: faith leaders from Judaism, Islam, several Christian denominations; along with Indigenous leaders and charitable organizations.
They called themselves “leaders representing communities which draw their inspiration and strength from what we variously understand and relate to as a higher and transcendent source.”
The statement stressed the need to prioritize the well-being of all members of society over individual needs during the pandemic, and to follow the directives of public health officers and government.
“We encourage our fellow citizens to not merely adhere to them begrudgingly and minimally, but willingly and with an overabundance of care. We pledge to model this ourselves each in our own particular communities as well in ways appropriate to contexts.
“This may require certain sacrifices of self and of freedom, but such is the path of love.”
The statement went on to say their respective faiths’ teachings call on worshippers to be “mindful to those in our human family who are at more immediate risk of harm when times of crisis such as these emerge: those who are inadequately housed or homeless, newcomers to Canada, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, people living with pre-existing health challenges, and those without the same financial security that some enjoy.”
The statement also acknowledged the importance of social supports like charities.
” Even as we ask individuals to be generous in giving to support such efforts, it remains critical for governments to prioritize these pillars of our society in addition to working to protect businesses and economic growth.”
“In the face of COVID-19, let us all commit to carrying the burdens of one another, and to leaving no one behind.”
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, has not commented on GraceLife directly, but has said health rules are mandatory and need to be followed.
“There have been recent events in some faith gatherings that indicate some are not taking these measures seriously,” Hinshaw said during her Monday update.
“I want to reinforce these measures are mandatory, not optional, and that in Alberta we have made great efforts to make sure that faith communities can continue to meet in a safe way.
“Those who are not following current restrictions are breaking the law.”
Hinshaw stressed the continued importance of masking and physical distancing in all settings, and reiterated the call to stay home if you’re unwell.
— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press