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FIRST-PERSON: Canadian authorities needlessly escalate conflict over COVID-19 and religion

Supporters gather outside GraceLife Church near Edmonton on Sunday (April 11). The church has been fenced off by police and Alberta Health Services for its violation of COVID-19 rules. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

NASHVILLE (BP) — By now the situation involving Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church, which is just outside the city of Edmonton, Alberta, has gained the attention of many evangelicals in both Canada and the United States.

Back in February, Coates turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after the church violated public health restrictions related to COVID-19. Authorities in Canada then took the extraordinary step of holding Coates in jail for 35 days for an infraction “that is not punishable by jail time.”

At the time, the ERLC called the actions inflammatory and inexcusable and called for Coates’ immediate release. And though Coates has now been released, the situation has only gotten worse.

Needless escalation

On March 22, Coates was released from jail (see ERLC coverage here). The criminal charges against him were dropped, and Coates returned home to his family and resumed worship activities with his church. It is worth noting that Coates’ objections to the health orders were never arbitrary.

According to Wyatt Graham at The Gospel Coalition, Coates and GraceLife hold “the religious conviction that the whole congregation must meet together during one service … [and] could not in good conscience follow the emergency health orders authorized by the Alberta Health Act, which restricted building occupancy to 15 percent of a building’s fire-code capacity.”

With the terms of his release, Coates had another court date set for May related to a health order violation. But before that trial could take place, and mere weeks after Coates was released from jail, officials in Canada further escalated tensions in the matter.

As Christianity Today reports, on Wednesday of last week “Health officials in Alberta, Canada, made the decision to ‘physically close’ [GraceLife Church] until its leaders agree to finally comply with coronavirus regulations.” To exclude worshippers from the building, authorities erected temporary fencing around the property and used police vehicles to block access to the parking lot.

These actions were particularly egregious and incendiary. Religious freedom is a fundamental right in Canada just as it is here in the United States.

“Freedom of conscience and religion is the first fundamental freedom listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Canadian religious liberty organization. “It is listed first because it is one of the key bedrock principles on which Canada is built. The government has so far refused to justify the limits on worship and gathering. Health orders are inconsistent, differing from province to province, and arbitrarily created by one public health official who is under no obligation legally to advise the legislatures of the science and rationale which supposedly are the basis of the orders.”

Protesters respond

In response to these aggressive and provocative actions, hundreds of protestors showed up outside of GraceLife’s facility on Sunday. The crowd assembled outside of the erected barricade to demonstrate against the state’s authoritarian efforts to prevent a Christian congregation from gathering for worship. According to multiple reports, a significant number of police officers – possibly hundreds – responded to the scene to counter the presence of the protestors. It shouldn’t be missed that in making these inflammatory moves, local officials actually fostered an environment for people to get together en masse, creating a moment that could lead to further spread of the virus.

Conflict between the protestors and police was minimal. At one point, some protestors attempted to take down the fence, but that was quickly halted as police and other protestors worked together to restore the barricade. More important, on Sunday night the church released a statement through the Justice Centre to clarify that its congregants were not present and did not participate in the protest. The statement read in part:

“GraceLife Church appreciates the public outpouring of support to fully open churches in Alberta. Grace Life Church congregants were not at the protest that occurred on Sunday, April 11, 2021 near the Church’s facility. GraceLife Church recognizes the place for peaceful protest within the context of a democracy.

“GraceLife Church has no control of our Church or grounds at this time. The Church grounds are fully under the responsibility and control of the RCMP and Alberta Health Services. The closing of the GraceLife facility has understandably resulted in significant public outrage and caused even larger crowds to gather in one place. Albertans have a constitutional right to assemble, associate, and worship. By taking the measures the government has, while the matter is still pending before the Courts, the Alberta Government has created an even more divisive situation.”

Moving forward

The sight of temporary fencing, police vehicles and dozens of law enforcement officers on the perimeter of a church property is jarring. It should be. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious international concern. But the freedom for churches to worship Christ is of perpetual, not to mention eternal, concern.

Throughout the pandemic, the ERLC has counseled churches and government officials to view one another as partners and allies in the fight against coronavirus. In many places, conflicts between houses of worship and public officials have been marginal or nonexistent. In fact, there are countless examples of churches and religious organizations stepping forward over the last year to meet critical needs in their communities – from providing childcare for essential workers to providing food and housing assistance to people who lost their jobs to manufacturing PPE that was in short supply to serving as vaccination sites. These are just a few examples of churches operating as partners, cooperating with governments to advance the common good in a time of immense difficulty.

But to respect the lines of authority and responsibility of both the church and the state, the ERLC has also encouraged government and public health officials to issue guidance rather than mandates related to COVID-19 for houses of worship. We believe pastors are best equipped to lead their own congregations and that government can best serve churches and secure its own interest of protecting public health by providing adequate resources and information for pastors to make these decisions.

In the case of Coates and GraceLife, authorities in Alberta have repeatedly and needlessly escalated tensions through provocative action. Jailing Coates for more than a month was unconscionable. Barricading the church property further demonstrated the government’s animus and hostility. And the police presence from this past Sunday provoked and inflamed tensions, eroding public trust.

Government officials have a duty to promote public health and safety. But that duty is in service to a particular end – namely, protecting the ability of citizens to live their lives and enjoy their freedom, including the freedom to worship. The pandemic has called for certain necessary, restrictive measures, but this sort of antagonistic behavior and ongoing harassment of a peaceful congregation is unwarranted and indefensible. Through these actions, the government has made adversaries of citizens for the simple offense of religious worship. There is no excuse for this kind of hostility or aggression.

Officials in Canada must demonstrate reason and good will. Deploying masses of law enforcement officers to ensure Christians are unable to gather for worship represents neither. Because the freedom to worship is fundamental, the lessons and mistakes here transcend the current moment and any concerns about the pandemic. Alberta’s government should remember Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and deescalate this conflict.