Alberta Health Services has closed GraceLife Church in Parkland County west of Edmonton.
In an emailed statement to CBC News Wednesday morning, RCMP confirmed they were on scene, assisting AHS as they closed the church under Section 62.1 of the Alberta Public Health Act.
As of 8:30 a.m., police vehicles and unmarked SUVs were blocking entrances to the church parking lot.
In a media statement, AHS said it “physically closed” the church and has prevented access until the church “can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s chief medical officer of health’s restrictions.”
‘Draconian and aggressive enforcement’
Lawyer John Carpay called the closure of the church outrageous.
“I’m very disappointed to see this kind of draconian and aggressive enforcement of health orders when these health orders themselves are being challenged in court,” Carpay told CBC News.
“It shows a very aggressive government that is not answering questions about its policies, but wants to push its weight around and try and make an example out of GraceLife Church.”
Carpay said he had not spoken yet to pastor James Coates and was unsure what would happen next Sunday. He speculated that there would still be a worship service held in a different building.
University of Calgary law professor Lorian Hardcastle said she expects congregants to hold some form of protest on Sunday.
She applauded the closure but questioned the timing.
“I think it’s concerning that the government and law enforcement allowed for two services to happen over the Easter weekend,” Hardcastle said. “Especially with the variants now we know circulating in quite a widespread manner in Edmonton.”
Hundreds attended services
The church has been at the centre of a prolonged battle over COVID-19 enforcement.
Since December it has repeatedly defied public orders, with hundreds of people attending services. The services continued despite a closure order issued by AHS in January.
Provincial regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 restrict in-person attendance at churches to 15 per cent of capacity and call for those who do attend to physically distance and wear masks.
AHS said it has attempted to work collaboratively with the church for months to address ongoing public health concerns.
Steps taken before Wednesday’s physical closure include:
- An order issued by AHS on Dec. 17 requiring the church to comply with restrictions ordered by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
- A Court of Queen’s Bench order obtained Jan. 21 requiring the church to comply with the previous order.
- A closure order issued Jan. 29 requiring closure until compliance with the restrictions was attained.
- On March 27, AHS sent a letter to Coates providing him with information on the continued spread of COVID-19.
- Last week AHS invited Coates to meet virtually to discuss the risks presented by COVID-19, but the church has not provided any dates to meet.
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 in the media 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.”
Pastor previously charged, jailed
Between July 10 last year and Tuesday of this week, AHS said it has received 105 complaints from the public about the church.
AHS said inspectors have conducted 18 inspections at the site since July 10, 2020, and violations were observed at each visit.
Coates was charged in February with violating COVID-19 public health orders.
After he was charged, Coates was jailed for refusing to comply with a bail condition that he only hold services in compliance with public health orders. In early March, his lawyers appealed with the argument that it would go against the pastor’s conscience before God not to lead worshippers.
Coates spent 35 days in custody before pleading guilty to a charge of breaching bail and was fined $1,500. He returned to the pulpit on March 28.
The church was also charged as an entity for exceeding allowable capacity at Sunday services in February.
‘Stay tuned’ for enforcement changes: Kenney
Asked about repeated enforcement offences by Coates and the church, Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday that more stringent enforcement of restrictions may be necessary to clamp down on surging cases of COVID-19.
He said Albertans breaking public health measures are undermining efforts to curb the spread of the virus, but that changes to enforcement would not be led by political decisions.
“As you know, in our country, political officials do not and should not direct the operational enforcement decisions of police and enforcement agencies,” the premier said in an interview with CBC radio. “There’s got to be a separation there.”
Kenney said many enforcement officials have taken a “great deal of abuse” while attempting to clamp down on rule-breakers.
“I do think our enforcement folks, whether it’s arrests or bylaw officers, the police forces, they’ve been very patient during a difficult time trying to get compliance through education, through voluntary compliance and using sanctions as a last resort.
“But I understand there may be action coming. And in some cases and I would just say stay tuned on that.”
With files from Janice Johnston
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