Fence goes up around Alta. church refusing to follow COVID-19 orders

A fence has been erected around an Alberta church after its congregation has met for months in violation of provincial COVID-19 orders.

Chain link fencing surrounded GraceLife Church and its parking lot in Parkland County west of Edmonton Wednesday morning.

Alberta Health Services said it "physically closed" the building and will be preventing access to it until GraceLife "can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health's restrictions." 

Security and RCMP were also on scene. Mounties told CTV News Edmonton they were there "to assist with enforcement." 

Several church supporters also attended, angry with the measures being taken by officials. 

"It's time this insanity ended," one commented. 

PASTOR'S LAWYER SAYS GOV'T REQUESTING TRIAL DELAY

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, who is representing Coates and GraceLife in court, called the Wednesday closure a denial of the Charter freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and worship. 

Places of worship are allowed to host services with 15 per cent capacity, physical distancing, and masks.

Pastor James Coates was charged – and jailed for several weeks – for refusing to comply with the public health orders, and the church as an entity was charged itself earlier in the year and ordered to close by AHS.

His trial was scheduled for May 3, but JCCF president John Carpay says the government has asked for a delay until July 2021 to ready its evidence. 

"The government has had 13 months to put together a scientific and medical basis to justify its violations of our fundamental Charter freedomes... For the government to shut down GraceLife Church as part of enforcing health orders, while also seeking to delay the Charter challenge to the validity of those very same orders, is unconscionable and completely undemocratic." 

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.

The situation has been a point of criticism against Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative government and Alberta's top doctor Deena Hinshaw, who have been accused 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 police charge. 

JCCF says it is trying to subpoena Hinshaw to testify at Coates' trial. 

105 COMPLAINTS SINCE JULY 2020: AHS

AHS described its effort to work with the church to follow the rules as "collaborative." Most recently, AHS says it sent a letter to Coates "providing him with information on the continued spread of COVID-19." 

"Last week, AHS invited Pastor Coates to meet virtually to discuss the risks presented by COVID-19, however the church has not provided any dates to meet," a statement read. "(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."

Between July 2020 and April 6, 2021, AHS received 105 complaints about GraceLife and conducted 18 inspections. Violations were seen at each inspection, AHS noted. 

Opposition and NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she was glad to see AHS finally taking steps to enforce public health orders at the church. 

"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," she wrote on Twitter.