The pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in southeast Calgary has been arrested after months of encouraging congregants to break COVID-19-related public health rules.
Pastor Tim Stephens is just one of a number of people arrested and/or charged in the past few weeks in Alberta after the United Conservative government brought in new protocols in early May to increase enforcement against COVID rule-breakers. Enforcement has targeted individuals, organizations and businesses that have flagrantly spurned public health orders — especially repeat offenders.
The heightened enforcement comes 14 months into the pandemic and after weeks of Alberta having the highest number of active cases per capita in Canada.
Police said Stephens was arrested for organizing a church service on Sunday at Fairview Baptist Church, in violation of a Court of Queen's Bench Order that requires organizers of events to comply with public health restrictions.
Stephens was proactively served last week with a copy of the court order, which was obtained by Alberta Health Services.
"The pastor acknowledged the injunction, but chose to move forward with today's service, ignoring requirements for social distancing, mask wearing and reduced capacity limits for attendees," police said in an emailed release.
Police said AHS had been attempting for weeks to work with the church to address the ongoing public health concerns at the site, and that enforcement was a last resort.
AHS also issued a closure order for the church on Sunday.
"We continue to ask those who may be considering organizing or participating in any outdoor events to ensure they are familiar with public health order requirements and to do their part to prevent further spread of the virus," police said.
Stephens has previously been fined and ticketed for defying public health regulations by holding over-capacity gatherings and not enforcing mask use.
Churches are currently limited to a maximum occupancy of 15 people, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta. The province has the highest active case rate in the country, with more than 22,000 active cases.
Many Calgary churches have moved to offering online services in order to keep their congregants safe. There have been multiple outbreaks at churches around the province during the COVID-19 pandemic, but only one church outbreak is currently active.
"Restricting the church to 15 people — which essentially restricts the church from gathering — is against the will of Christ and against the conscience of many who desire to worship the Lord of glory according to his word," Stephens wrote in a blog post following the updated restrictions earlier this month, added that he planned to continue to flout public safety laws.
Ken Lima-Coelho, who has lived in the Fairview area for his entire life, said he's glad to see action finally being taken to see his family and fellow community members safe.
"He was literally daring the authorities to do something … it frankly became really scary," he said. "It's irresponsible."
Lima-Coelho said one of his neighbours is undergoing chemotherapy, which would put them at greater risk if they contract COVID-19.
"Imagine the day before you start a course of cancer treatment the thing you're worried about is the church down the street … in a time like this when everybody's making sacrifices and frankly people have to make good choices, this church has shown nothing but disregard not just for their own health and the health of their congregation, but for their neighbours and the community they've been welcomed into."
AHS inspection found violations
A January AHS inspection at the church found only two of approximately 75 attendees were wearing masks, the pastor and church staff were unmasked and rows in the auditorium were full, with people sitting side-by-side in rows less than two metres apart.
The inspection also found that there was no cleaning or disinfecting of high-touch surfaces between services.
Stephens said in the blog post that his church has seen no coronavirus transmission. CBC News has reached out to AHS to ask whether any cases have been tied to the church.
Since Alberta has seen increased enforcement against COVID-19 rule-breakers this month, those arrested and/or charged include:
As well, Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in the Edmonton-area has been on trial in May after officials said he repeatedly held in-person church services that ignored measures on capacity limits, physical distancing and masking.
On Sunday, Alberta reported 1,140 new COVID-19 cases and three more deaths. There were 22,280 active COVID-19 cases. Alberta continues to have the highest active-case rate — in other words, active cases per person — of all provinces and territories in Canada.