Alberta authorities have physically closed a church that was flagrantly breaking COVID-19 regulations.
GraceLife Church in Edmonton has been one of the places of worship at the centre of a holy war waged by a group of pastor’s against the protocols put in to reduce the pandemic’s death count. Early Wednesday morning health authorities and RCMP officers went to church, blocked off the roads surrounding it, and erected a steel fence around it.
This is the first time during the pandemic that Canadian authorities have stepped in to forcibly close a place of worship. The province first ordered the church to close on January 19 but GraceLife Church paid no heed.
GraceLife church’s pastor, James Coates, has gained infamy for his steadfast refusal to acquiesce to COVID-19 safety measures. Coates was held behind bars for several weeks after he surrendered to authorities for breaking COVID-19 protocols and refused to agree to the bail conditions that would lead to his release. The conditions were that he merely follow the rules already in place that would have allowed him to keep preaching but only allow his church up to fill to 15 percent capacity.
His story became a rallying cry for anti-lockdown zealots across the country. Coates was released on March 22 and all but one of the charges against him were dropped. He immediately went back to preaching to a full crowd, taking no precautions.
Alberta is currently in the midst of perhaps Canada's most severe third wave of COVID-19 as cases have jumped 27 percent in the last week forcing them to implement another lockdown and Premier Jason Kenney to plead with people to stay at home.
The premier's pleas fell on deaf ears at GraceLife church, however. The church held two packed Easter services this weekend in which local media reported the parking lot was crammed full and livestream video shows the congregation happily unmasking and singing near each other.
In a statement, Alberta Health Services said that they've attempted to work with the church before taking such extreme measures, including attempting to meet with Coates last week but the church wouldn't agree on a time.
“Alberta Health Service (AHS) physically closed GraceLife Church (GLC) and has prevented access to the building until GLC can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health's restrictions," reads the statement. "GLC has decided not to follow these mandatory restrictions, nor have they attempted to work with AHS to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission."
Coates and his followers aren’t merely on a holy mission. In a statement that had been previously posted on GraceLife church’s website, the pastor greatly downplayed the severity of the pandemic and echoed a popular conspiracy theory that the pandemic is a ploy for the elites to strip people of their freedoms.
Coates and GraceLife Church have yet to respond to the actions taken by Alberta Health Services but on Instagram Erin Coates, the pastor's wife, posted images of the fence going up and a lengthy response. Like her husband she indicated a belief that this is about more than controlling the spread of the virus.
“I pray for all the pastors and Christians that still think this is about a virus and health order,” she wrote. “Clearly our Charter and criminal code mean nothing as long as the government can come up with a good enough story to disregard it. God have mercy on our nation. I pray for their souls. They are clearly under Your judgment.”
GraceLife church isn’t the only Albertan church in the spotlight this month. A Calgary pastor—known for his homophobic stances and recently helped organize a tiki torch march in Edmonton—recently became the darling of international right-wing media for throwing police officers out of his church.
Online supporters of the church have responded strongly to the measures taken by AHS. One wrote “this is tyranny no matter how you slice it” while another wrote that he believed this was “the first shot by Kenney to incite a civil war.”
Coates will be going to trial in May to face once charge of violating an Order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.
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