Edmonton pastor ticketed for COVID-19 violations, northern pastor calls rules 'tyranny'

Health officials have ordered an Edmonton-area church to immediately comply with COVID-19 restrictions, while the pastor at its sister church in northern Alberta has counselled his congregation against following physical distancing and masking rules.

Northern Alberta pastor says parishioners don't need to follow rules

Health officials have ordered GraceLife Church of Edmonton to immediately comply with COVID-19 restrictions. (GraceLife Church of Edmonton)

The pastor at an Edmonton-area church was handed a $1,200 ticket Sunday for contravening the orders of Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

A spokesperson for Parkland RCMP confirmed Tuesday that officers went to GraceLife Church of Edmonton at the request of Alberta Health Services inspectors and ticketed the pastor. Days earlier, on Dec. 17, AHS officials had issued an order to GraceLife and Pastor James Coates, directing them to immediately begin complying with COVID-19 restrictions.

According to the order, some of the Parkland County church staff, volunteers and attendees were unmasked, and people were socializing and not distancing in the lobby. Under Alberta's current rules, churches have been allowed to remain open at 15 per cent capacity if other public health guidelines around distancing and masking are followed.

Inspectors said the pews were mostly full and people from different households did not appear to be distanced.

A group reportedly performed without masks or distancing, and the report said the 15 per cent capacity may have been exceeded because it didn't appear anyone was counting people coming into the building. 

Inspectors found non-compliance

The AHS order directs the church to ensure people are masking, distancing and that capacity rules are being followed. The church was also told to complete a "relaunch plan."

When a public health inspector and the RCMP went back to the church on Dec. 20 to ensure the issues identified in the order had been addressed, they again found the church "well above" 15 per cent capacity, people not wearing masks, a lack of physical distancing and a group performance in which performers were not physically distancing or wearing masks, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email Tuesday.

The RCMP spokesperson said that the ticket was issued under section 73.1 of the Public Health Act, and that all parties were co-operative and respectful when it was issued. 

A notice posted to GraceLife Church's website. On Dec. 17, Alberta Health Services ordered the church to comply with provincial health restrictions after inspectors alleged the church was not following masking, physical distancing or capacity rules. (GraceLife Church of Edmonton)

Pastor James Coates did not respond to an email Monday requesting an interview, but a notice on the GraceLife Church website said that because of the orders of Alberta's chief medical officer of health, the facility is closed to the general public and only open to members, regular adherents and those in the membership process. 

During a news conference Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said it's a very small minority of churches that are not following the rules, however, he said those churches are behaving irresponsibly and putting their communities at risk. 

Speaking in French, Kenney said Alberta has allowed religious gatherings to continue to take place under the COVID-19 restrictions, but that the rules must be followed.

He said the golden rule of all religions is to take care of others, and he said he hopes people do the right thing.

On Dec.15, another GraceLife church, the Grace Bible Fellowship in La Crete, published a recording of a sermon by Pastor Mike Hovland, in which he described the province's public health restrictions as "tyranny" and counselled church members to ignore the rules meant to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

Hovland did not respond to an email Monday requesting an interview.

He told parishioners it was up to each of them to make up their own mind and follow their conscience.

"Each of us need to answer these questions for our own selves, but I say our fellowship and our worship is much too important to obey for us to obey these mandates," Hovland said.

"I say that the government has gone beyond its God-given authority. I say it's our duty to obey God, to resist tyranny and to submit to whatever they decide to do to us."

County was COVID-19 hotspot

He said that "most of us" have already had COVID-19, presumably referring to his congregation. 

In the summer, health officials confirmed they were making efforts to do extra outreach to residents of La Crete, a small community in Mackenzie County in northwest Alberta.

At the time, the county had become a COVID-19 hotspot. On Monday, Alberta Health data listed 20 active cases, giving the county a rate of 82.7 cases per 100,000.

During Hovland's roughly hour-long sermon he said he believes masks are "a form of control."

"They want to try to train us to obey the government regardless of any science or information," he said.

Studies have repeatedly shown that masks are effective in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In June, the World Health Organization funded a study where researchers reviewed 172 studies about the effectiveness of masks, eye protection and physical distancing in decreasing the spread of COVID-19, and found that the measures work.

Hovland also questioned whether the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 is significant. Over the past 10 months, 860 Albertans have died of COVID-19.

'Start with education'

During an update in early November, Dr. Deena Hinshaw noted that in the past four influenza seasons the peak number of deaths recorded in a full year was 92.

Asked about the GraceLife churches at her news conference Monday, Hinshaw said the province has spent months working collaboratively with faith communities across the province. She said that has gone well in most cases, but there are still opportunities to try to build bridges.

"Ultimately, when any group is putting their communities at risk, we, of course, start with education," she said. "We start with offering support. That's always how the public health teams begin engagement.

"But if groups continue to make decisions that put their communities at risk — not just those who may attend those services or who attend a particular event or gathering, but those actions put their broader community at risk — then unfortunately sometimes it does need to move into an enforcement category."

She said the majority of Alberta faith leaders have demonstrated leadership in making sure their communities have accurate information.

"In my opinion, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to make choices about how we care for each other," she said. "And the measures in place right now are the best way to care for our neighbours and our communities."

Legal challenge failed

In his sermon, Hovland raised the possibility that Alberta's public health orders violate charter rights, an argument made by various groups throughout the pandemic, including at regular anti-mask rallies.

At one such gathering in Calgary this weekend, multiple charges were laid, including assault against a police officer. 

On Monday, a Calgary judge rejected an emergency application by two southern Alberta churches and a gym owner seeking a stay of Alberta's public health restrictions.

Lawyers for the group of plaintiffs have filed a challenge in the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, arguing that the province's COVID-19 restrictions violate their clients' constitutional rights.

The group had asked Justice Anne Kirker to issue an injunction ahead of its hearing on the constitutionality of the restrictions, but she found the risk of COVID-19 was real and refused to grant the stay, saying it would not be in the public interest.

In an interview about the application, a constitutional law expert said such challenges have a "remote possibility" of success because the charter allows for governments to have a broad mandate to act during crises.


Paige Parsons reports on justice issues, courts and crime, with a special focus on public safety. Send Paige a story tip at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.

With files from Meghan Grant