Alberta Church Shut Down, Fenced Off for Non-Compliance With COVID-19 Restrictions

April 8, 2021 Updated: April 10, 2021

An Alberta church has been shut down and fenced off for continuing to hold services in defiance of the province’s COVID-19 public health restrictions.

On April 7, Alberta Health Services closed GraceLife Church and had police and security staff put up metal fencing around the building to prevent people from entering.

The Edmonton church will remain closed until it “can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s (CMOH) restrictions,” said AHS in a statement released the same day.

AHS said there have been 105 complaints about the church since last July. 

“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.”

GraceLife caught the attention of the Alberta government when it hosted more people than the 15 percent limit mandated for faith services in the province. In December 2020, AHS fined the church $1,200 for violating public health restrictions.

AHS issued a closure order in January, but the church’s pastor James Coates continued holding services, and on Feb. 7, the RCMP told him he would be arrested. Coates turned himself in on Feb. 16.

Coates was charged with multiple Public Health Act offences and a criminal offence related to bail conditions imposed on Feb. 7. He remained in custody in the Edmonton Remand Centre when he refused to comply with his conditions of release to not hold services. Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the jail on Feb. 20 to show their support for Coates and “standing for religious and Charter freedoms.”

On March 22, after a month in jail, the pastor was released when Crown prosecutors agreed to withdraw all but one charge against him. However, he was fined $1,500 for breaching bail.

Officials said Coates did not stop holding Sunday services after his release. He and the church still face one count each of violating public health measures and were scheduled to go to trial in May.

In a public statement posted to its website in February, GraceLife explained why the church continued opening for its congregants.

“Having engaged in an immense amount of research, interacting with both doctors and frontline healthcare workers, it is apparent that the negative effects of the government lockdown measures on society far surpass the effects of COVID-19,” the statement said.

“The science being used to justify lockdown measures is both suspect and selective. In fact, there is no empirical evidence that lockdowns are effective in mitigating the spread of the virus.” 

“We are gravely concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties,” the church added.

AHS has not said if there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at GraceLife due to their services. The church said it had two cases last summer, but no cases identified after that.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents Coates and GraceLife, said it is outraged that the Alberta government entered a private church and erected metal fencing around the building.

“Freedom of conscience and religion is the first fundamental freedom listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is listed first because it is one of the key bedrock principles on which Canada is built,” Justice Centre President John Carpay said in a statement Wednesday.

“The government has so far refused to justify the limits on worship and gathering.”

The Justice Centre said it is in the process of filing a subpoena to require Alberta’s CMOH Dr. Deena Hinshaw to testify at the trial of Pastor Coates.