EDMONTON — The Alberta government has closed down and fenced off a church that has been charged with refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules.
Alberta Health Services, in a statement, says GraceLife church will remain closed until it shows it will comply with public-health measures meant to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Police and security staff were on hand as metal fencing was put up around the church building Wednesday.
“Alberta Health Services physically closed GraceLife Church and has prevented access to the building until (the church) can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s restrictions,” the health authority said in a statement.
“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.”
GraceLife had become a focus of criticism against Premier Jason Kenney’s government as the church stayed open, despite Kenney’s warning of consequences for any public-health violators.
The church, just west of Edmonton, had ignored public-health warnings for months, and its pastor spent a month in jail.
Alberta Health Services noted it has issued penalties and tried to work with the church for months, but had been rebuffed or ignored.
Churches are allowed to be open at 15 per cent capacity and congregants must be masked, but officials say GraceLife has welcomed hundreds of congregants at its services, and worshippers have been seen without masks.
The dispute stretches back to before Christmas when the church was first directed to comply with health rules. The health agency says that was ignored. In late January, the church was ordered to close. That, too, was ignored.
The pastor, James Coates, was arrested for violating public-health orders and held in jail for a month. On March 22, he pleaded guilty to breaching bail conditions, was fined $1,500 and was released.
Officials say he has continued to hold Sunday services. He and the church still face one count each of violating public-health rules and are to go to trial in May.
The church has opposed the restrictions on secular and religious grounds.
Coates, in a February sermon, said civil governments exist to serve God’s plan — a plan that includes freedom of worship.
"(Any) attempt to dictate to us the terms of worship is not the government's jurisdiction, and I refuse to give the government what isn't theirs,'' Coates said at the time.
In a statement posted to its website in February, the church questioned the severity of the pandemic. It said restrictions were doing far worse damage to public health than the virus, and feared they were a Trojan horse to strip people of civil liberties.
Alberta Health Services said Wednesday there have been 105 complaints about the church going back to last July.
The issue has been a public relations black eye for Kenney’s United Conservative government and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health. They have faced accusations of a double standard in enforcement or a lack of willingness to back up warnings.
Both have stressed they can’t get involved in day-to-day decisions on who is charged.
Kenney, in a CBC Radio interview Wednesday, reiterated he must respect the firewall around law enforcement.
“Political officials do not — and should not — direct the operational enforcement decisions of police and enforcement agencies,” he said.
“I do think our enforcement folks ... (have) been very patient through a difficult time trying to get compliance through education, through voluntary compliance and using sanctions as a last resort.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she was pleased action was finally taken.
"I hope the members of GraceLife’s congregation take this opportunity to learn from the leadership of so many other communities that have continued to practice their faith in a manner that is safe for not only themselves but the broader Alberta community," Notley wrote on Twitter.
Alberta Health Services has not said if there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at the church due to services. GraceLife has said it had two cases last summer.
Alberta is into a third wave of COVID-19. Kenney on Tuesday brought back capacity restrictions on stores and gyms and shut down indoor dining at restaurants, pubs and cafes.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press