A Calgary church that has previously broken COVID-19 rules opened its doors Sunday and held a full service in support of the Edmonton pastor who remains in custody after refusing to follow the restrictions.
Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary told Global News that he is prepared to face the legal consequences.
“James (Coates) is a good friend of mine and it’s sad what’s happened to him,” Stephens said. “I’m prepared if that’s the same consequence for myself. I know other pastors feel the same way, that want to stand with him and support him and our brothers and sisters at GraceLife Church.”
Near Edmonton, GraceLife Church also held a service Sunday despite being previously issued a closure order from Alberta Health Services.
The service Sunday was so busy that some members were turned away as the building had reached its full fire code capacity. COVID-19 rules in Alberta say churches should only allow 15 per cent of that amount through the doors.
There were at least three police cruisers present at GraceLife on Sunday.
RCMP said in a news release that they “continued their investigation” into GraceLife Church on Sunday and that “observations were made that the church held a service beyond the designated capacity.”
RCMP said officials are working to determine the next course of action and plan to provide an update later in the week.
Coates remains in custody at Edmonton’s Remand Centre. On Saturday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the centre and called for his release.
Around 20 people held a much smaller protest and outdoor sermon in support of Coates at the centre on Sunday afternoon.
Calgary’s Stephens said that he believes many parishioners around the province “desire to worship God freely.”
“These health restrictions are limiting and hindering our ability to do that. So we’re standing today with GraceLife and other churches across our province to worship and to say that church is essential.”
“The in-person worship is so vital to a church, just like it’s vital to schools — that’s why they’re open, that’s why they don’t have capacity levels.”
Stephens added that his church has put up COVID-19 signage and has masks available for those who would like one.
The Edmonton Interfaith Centre released a letter this month signed by over two dozen different faith leaders that asked religious leaders and all Albertans to “attend closely to the recommendations and directives of public health officers.”
Netta Phillet, the coordinator for the centre, said that the group will not comment on specific churches but believes those of all faith should be looking out for the greater good.
“To do something that is not for the social good, we should think about that,” Phillet said. “Are we listening to God? Are we listening to our ego? Are we listening to our own possibly selfish desires?
“It’s unfortunate, but anyone whose faith leads them to actions that put them above the law or outside the law — [it] almost always is going to result in unpleasantness.”
Phillet added that she believes the vast majority of religious centres in the province are following the rules.
“To see people in a church being charged with anything, with an offence, it’s unfortunate,” she said. “And I hope that parishioners will all question whether it’s worth it.”
AHS said it does not provide direction to police or municipal enforcement but instead works in partnership with them.
“If AHS is made aware of a complaint and, following an inspection or investigation, deems that further action is required by either police or city bylaw, we will contact them. Police have the ability to issues fines or lay charges under the Public Health Act.”
The City of Calgary said: “Often, tickets are not immediately issued to ensure we can investigate properly. We will provide an update on any enforcement activity as part of our update on Thursday.”
–with files from Global News’ Chris Chacon and Jacqueline Wilson