The new normal in Alberta: pastors in jail for holding church services?

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The new normal in Alberta: pastors in jail for holding church services?

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EDMONTON:  The Justice Centre is representing Grace Life Church (Grace Life), a large church near Edmonton, and its pastor James Coates. The congregants of Grace Life hold strongly to their religious beliefs regarding the necessity of gathering in-person to worship and to minister to each other through fellowship and corporate prayer and worship, exercising their Charter freedoms peacefully.  Alberta Health Services (AHS) has ticketed Pastor Coates, taken Grace Life and Pastor Coates to court, and even attempted to completely shut the Church down.

When the Alberta Government first imposed various restrictions on churches and gatherings in the spring of 2020, Grace Life initially suspended in-person worship gatherings in response to news of a novel virus with unknown severity. However, Grace Life resumed in-person worship gatherings in June of 2020 when it became clear that the Government’s initial dire predictions regarding Covid had been based on modelling that has now proven to be inaccurate. Government data and statistics continue to show that advanced age, and especially residing in a nursing home, are the leading risk factors for death from Covid, particularly where there are several serious co-morbidities. For the vast majority of the population, Covid is not a serious threat. This is especially so for children, who are statistically at greater risk of dying from the annual flu than from Covid.

As a faith community, the congregants of Grace Life Church are concerned about all aspects of each other’s health: spiritual, relational, mental, financial and also physical.

“Even in the summer of 2020, it had become apparent to congregants of Grace Life that government lockdowns cause far more self-imposed harm than the natural harm of Covid,” stated James Kitchen, staff lawyer with the Justice Centre.

The congregants of Grace Life fear sickness and death less than they fear government oppression, being isolated from their fellow congregants, and disobeying the God they love and worship.

In a public statement, the church leadership states:

“We believe [people] should responsibly return to their lives. Churches should open, businesses should open, families and friends should come together around meals, and people should begin to exercise their civil liberties again. Otherwise we may not get them back. In fact, some say we are on the cusp of reaching the point of no return. Protect the vulnerable, exercise reasonable precautions, but begin to live your lives again… Living life comes with risks. Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we are assuming a degree of risk. We accept that risk due to the benefits of driving. Yes, though vastly overblown, there are associated risks with Covid, as there are with other infections. Human life, though precious, is fragile. As such, death looms over all of us. That is why we need a message of hope.”

Restrictions imposed in November and December 2020 through the Orders of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, demanded that churches gather at only 15% of building capacity and that all attendees mask and distance from each other. These restrictions severely interfere with the ability of the congregants of Grace Life to manifest their religious beliefs, and are a violation of their constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and religion, expression, peaceful assembly and association as protected by section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Regarding the restrictions as unjustified and choosing to obey God over government, the congregants of Grace Life have continued to gather in their regular numbers and worship in freedom without masking and distancing.

Grace Life Church is visible from a busy highway outside Edmonton. With a parking lot full of cars for Sunday service, it appears that Grace Life was snitched on. AHS officials began in November to show up and inspect the Church weekly. Each Sunday morning—during the worship service—an AHS inspector, often accompanied by law enforcement, demanded entry to the building, went into the sanctuary, and recorded the number of people present and whether they were masked and distanced. This has occurred almost every Sunday for three months, with no regard to how disturbing the presence of an AHS inspector and law enforcement is to congregants of Grace Life. The congregants of Grace Life regard the weekly invasion of AHS inspectors to be a potential criminal offense, pursuant to section 176(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which prohibits the interrupting or disturbing of a religious worship service.

On December 17, 2020, AHS inspector Janine Hanrahan issued an order against Grace Life church (the “December 17 AHS Order”) and publicly posted the Order on the internet, intentionally exposing Grace Life to public contempt. Previously normal, healthy activities such as sitting together and learning, playing instruments and singing, and not covering one’s face, are outlawed and described as if they are illicit and bizarre in the December 17 AHS Order and various AHS inspection reports.

“These Orders are reminiscent of what one encounters in dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984,” states Kitchen.

On January 21, 2021, AHS filed a court application to enforce through court order the December 17 AHS order, and to be given the power to throw Pastor Coates in jail if he continued to lead Grace Life in normal worship services. Despite Grace Life noting deficiencies with AHS’ December 17 Order, the Court of Queen’s Bench granted AHS’ application and ordered that Grace Life comply with the December 17 AHS Order. Although painfully aware of the potential consequences, Grace Life church congregants and Pastor Coates continue to exercise their constitutional freedoms to gather normally for in-person worship services, deciding to rather face penalties imposed by the Government than violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

On January 29, AHS issued a Closure Order, purporting to entirely close down Grace Life and prevent any congregants of Grace Life from gathering for in-person worship services at the church building. Grace Life and Pastor Coates continued to act according to their conscience and beliefs, and gather each Sunday for normal, in-person worship.

On Sunday, February 7, after the morning worship service, two RCMP officers met with Pastor Coates and a few others in his office at the Church. The officers told Pastor Coates that he was under arrest and must agree to stop breaching the CMOH Orders. Pastor Coates explained to the officers that he could not do that because to do so would violate his conscience and prevent him from fulfilling his duty as a minister to lead his congregation in worship. The officers then left, without arresting him.

Grace Life is a church of nearly 400 congregants. Not one has been lost to Covid, but, sadly, a congregant was lost to the Alberta Government lockdown in the first week of February when he died prematurely because he couldn’t get the cancer treatment he needed due to Government restrictions.

Grace Life again gathered for worship on Sunday, February 14 and again an AHS inspector entered the Church and reported the activities of the attendees. RCMP have notified Pastor Coates that they plan to arrest him again on Tuesday, February 16, and bring him before a Justice of the Peace, forcing the court to decide if Pastor Coates will be imprisoned. The Justice Centre will be representing Pastor Coates.

“The congregants of Grace Life refuse to accept the Alberta Government’s dystopian “new normal”. Their first loyalty is to obey their God, not government. They are committed to gathering, as they always have, for in-person worship services. They will challenge this excessive and unlawful government oppression rather than turn their back on their beliefs. They also believe they are lawfully exercising their Charter-protected freedoms and that the Government’s restrictions are not justifiable,” states Justice Centre Lawyer James Kitchen.

“Governments never destroy civil liberties without pointing to some reason that sounds good, such as “safety” or “equality”. The very reason certain rights and freedoms are protected by the Charter is so that government cannot simply ignore those rights by merely asserting its actions are for a good cause. By continuing to exercise their Charter rights, despite the potentially dramatic consequences, Grace Life and Pastor Coates and bringing democratic accountability to bear on a government that appears indifferent to the societal harms of lockdowns and the dismantling of civil liberties,” concludes Kitchen.

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