A section of temporary fencing put up around GraceLife Church west of Edmonton last week was pulled down by a group gathered outside the property Sunday morning.
Global News video captured a group of people pulling down a section of the fence as RCMP officers stood on the other side, but other protesters attempted to put it back up and reprimanded them.
The fence was put up around GraceLife Wednesday, April 7 at the direction of Alberta Health Services after the church failed to comply with the province’s COVID-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic.
Hundreds of people gathered outside GraceLife on Sunday to protest the church’s closure.
By 11 a.m., around 300 people were outside the church, some singing hymns at times as numerous RCMP officers stood at the roadway leading to the fenced-in church.
Alberta RCMP released a statement Sunday afternoon, stating it would attempt to preserve the peace and maintain public safety by only using the necessary level of intervention.
“The RCMP uses necessary measures to protect the fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, to promote the safety of all citizens, to enforce laws and to maintain peace and order,” the RCMP statement read.
“In turn, it must be recognized that while everyone has a right to peaceful freedom of expression, the general public, local residents and businesses also have the right to a safe environment.”
GraceLife Church released a statement, stating congregants were not involved in Sunday’s rally and that the church advocates for peaceful protest.
“GraceLife Church has no control of our church or grounds at this time. Our church has not been involved in organizing, planning or promoting any protests or activities taking place on or near the church lands,” the statement read.
“Our church grounds are fully under the responsibility and control of the RCMP and Alberta Health Services.”
The church said the Alberta government created a scenario that “may not be peaceful” and has caused division and anger by shutting down GraceLife.
Convoy from Calgary to Edmonton
People who identified themselves as “patriots” drove from Calgary to Edmonton on Sunday to protest the closure of GraceLife.
The convoy of about 20 vehicles left the Deerfoot City parking lot at about 6:45 a.m. with their vehicles decorated in signs and posters.
The convoy planned to stop in Red Deer for a break to “meet up with fellow patriots” before heading to GraceLife Church. It appeared members of the convoy had arrived outside the church by 10 a.m.
Closed until compliance
AHS said it will prevent building access until people “demonstrate the ability to comply” with restrictions.
“GraceLife Church 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 on April 7.
“With COVID-19 cases increasing and the more easily transmitted and potentially more severe variants becoming dominant, there is urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans.”
Pastor James Coates spent a month in jail for violating a bail condition not to hold services that ignored public health measures on capacity limits, physical distancing and masking. He was released March 22, 2021, after pleading guilty and was fined $1,500.
AHS said it has received 105 complaints from the public about the church from July 10, 2020, to April 6, 2021. AHS has conducted 18 inspections at the site since July 10, 2020, and “violations were observed at each visit.”
‘This virus is real’
When asked Saturday if Premier Jason Kenney had a message for the protesters, he said his message for “any Albertan” is to take the pandemic seriously.
“My message to people of faith, in particular, would be if you believe in the sanctity of human life, please act accordingly,” he said.
“This virus is real. It’s taken the lives of 2,000 Albertans, of millions of people around the world, and we are right now in the midst of what is likely the biggest wave of infection that we’ve experienced today.”
Kenney reminded people to follow the public health guidelines by having two metres of space between cohorts, wearing masks and avoiding physical contact.
“It would be tragic if a gathering would result in a superspreader event,” he said.
The premier said this case is ironic because Alberta has had the greatest protection for exercising religious freedoms of any province in Canada.
“This province has never suspended congregational worship. We have had limits on capacity, just like we do for fire code, but unlike most Canadian provinces, we have never shut churches or other places of worship,” Kenney said.
“We have about 10,000 places of worship in Alberta that have worked very hard to comply with the guidelines, to keep their congregants and the community safe. We have apparently one, maybe a couple of others, that have refused to do that.
“I think it’s ironic that in the province that has maintained the greatest freedom for freedom of worship, because the government is reluctant to impair constitutional rights, that this kind of event is happening.
“So I would say thank you to the 10,000 faith communities that have carefully followed the guidelines as best they can to respect the sanctity of human life and to protect the vulnerable.”
– With a file from The Canadian Press