Health officials in Alberta, Canada, made the decision to “physically close” a local church building until its leaders agree to finally comply with coronavirus regulations.
Police vehicles blocked entrances to the parking lot of GraceLife Church in Edmonton Wednesday morning and temporary fencing was erected around the building. The congregation has met normally since summer 2020, despite requirements that church gatherings limit capacity, require masks, and practice social distancing.
Over the last nine months, the province’s health department fielded more than 100 complaints about GraceLife and conducted 18 inspections, resulting in multiple fines and orders to comply. Its pastor was arrested and spent a month in jail refusing the conditions of bail, that he agree to follow health regulations.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents GraceLife and its pastor James Coates, said the move to barricade private church property prevents citizens from “exercising their Charter freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and worship.”
As officials surrounded the church, dozens of GraceLife members gathered outside and sang hymns, according to a report by the Globe and Mail.
“Please pray for wisdom as our elders navigate this new development!” one member tweeted, posting a screenshot of the view of the new fencing from the church’s security camera.
Premier Jason Kenney told Albertans a week ago that the province is in its third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. He suggested that more stringent enforcement by police may be necessary at this point, saying authorities have “been very patient during a difficult time trying to get compliance through education, through voluntary compliance, and using sanctions as a last resort.”
The GraceLife case has drawn the attention of those in both Canada and the US who fear government overreach during pandemic. Alberta legislator Dan Williams, a conservative politician and a Christian, spoke up to defend worship as a fundamental freedom. He said while he respects the 15 percent capacity limit for gatherings, “it is a different line to cross to barricade a church, a place of God.”
GraceLife leaders consider the COVID-19 risks overblown and claim that their ability to continue gathering without spreading the virus is proof.
“We believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties,” the church wrote. “We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end—the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections.”
Pastor Coates is due in court next month for violating gathering limits at GraceLife.