RCMP and members of Alberta Health Services were on scene at GraceLife Church west of Edmonton Wednesday morning to “physically close” the facility as temporary fencing was put up around the building.
Police were at the Spruce Grove church before 8 a.m. Crews could be seen putting fencing up around the building’s perimeter, as well as blocking off several parking stalls.
“Alberta Health Services physically closed GraceLife Church and has prevented access to the building until GLC can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s chief medical officer of health’s (CMOH) restrictions,” AHS said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Alberta RCMP confirmed officers were on scene to assist with enforcement.
For months, the church has been routinely holding services that violate COVID-19 restrictions.
Under Alberta’s public health orders, face masks are mandatory and churches are restricted to 15 per cent of fire code capacity.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said when it comes to enforcement of the public health measures, he and the premier have been clear that an arm’s length agency — whether that’s AHS or police agencies — is responsible.
Shandro said this particular case dates back to December when AHS started enforcement at the church.
“They did try with education, they did try it through court orders.
“The prosecutors, the public health inspectors and the police who were involved showed a great amount of patience and trying to work with the community as a first response to get them to comply,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
“Obviously we want to be able to work with our faith communities. And I should say this too, our faith communities throughout this province should be commended for wanting to take care of the congregations who are wanting to comply with the public health measures. So this one situation, we have seen a lot of recalcitrance over an extended period of time, and AHS and the police, the RCMP, have felt compelled to take these next steps.”
Over Easter weekend, GraceLife Church’s parking lot was once again packed on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
AHS said Wednesday that for “several months” the health authority has “attempted to work collaboratively with GLC to address the ongoing public health concerns at the site.”
According to AHS, steps taken prior to physically closing the site include:
- an order issued by AHS on Dec. 17, 2020, requiring GLC to comply with CMOH restrictions
- a Court of Queen’s Bench Order obtained on Jan. 21, 2021, requiring GLC to comply with the previous order
- a Closure Order issued on Jan. 29, 2021, requiring closure until compliance with the restrictions was attained
- on March 27, 2021, AHS sent a letter to the church’s pastor information on the continued spread of COVID-19
- last week, AHS invited the pastor to meet virtually to discuss the risks presented by COVID-19, but the church has not provided any dates to meet
“GLC has decided not to follow these mandatory restrictions, nor have they attempted to work with AHS to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” AHS said.
RCMP and AHS inspectors have appeared at the church property several times during services to ensure public health measures are being followed and in previous weeks, officers have said “the church did not comply with the restrictions.”
In a news release Wednesday, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms said it is outraged at the government’s “decision to enter private church property early this morning and put up a double barrier wall around GraceLife Church to prevent Albertans from exercising their Charter freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and worship.”
The group said it plans to challenge the constitutionality of Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s health orders in court, “arguing that they are an unjustified violation of Charter rights and freedoms.”
On March 28, an AHS spokesperson said environmental public health inspectors were denied entry to the church, while noting what “appeared to be breaches of the current CMOH (chief medical officer of health) restrictions related to capacity, physical distancing and masking.”
The church, along with its pastor James Coates, are set to appear in court in May. They are charged with violating measures under the Public Health Act related to capacity limits, physical distancing and masking.
Coates was released from jail on March 22 after he breached a bail condition to stop holding services that did not follow regulations. He pleaded guilty and was fined $1,500.
AHS said between July 10, 2020, and April 6, 2021, AHS has received 105 complaints from the public about GraceLife Church. AHS inspectors have conducted 18 inspections at the site since July 10 and “violations were observed at each visit,” AHS said.
In a news release sent Wednesday, the Justice Centre, which is representing Coates, said it is “in the process of filing a subpoena to require Alberta chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw to testify at the trial of Pastor Coates on May 3, 2021.”
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Alberta and AHS said there is an urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans.
The church closure comes one day after Premier Jason Kenney announced additional restrictions to help curb the third wave of COVID-19 in Alberta.
— with files from Morgan Black, Global News and The Canadian Press.