Parkland County church defies closure order, holds Sunday service for 300
AHS looking to legal action as GraceLife Church continues to flout COVID-19 rules
A church west of Edmonton held a service for 300 worshippers on Sunday, defying health inspectors who two days earlier had ordered it closed for COVID-19 health infractions.
Alberta Health Services issued a closure order to GraceLife Church in Parkland County on Friday for failing to abide by public health orders intended to reduce the spread of the virus.
But on Sunday, 300 people gathered inside the property for morning worship, AHS said in a statement Monday.
Health officials say they are considering further legal action against the church, while the lead pastor contends that his congregation is protected by prayer and a "legion of angels."
Public health inspectors and RCMP officers attended the Sunday service but church officials remained defiant about enforcement, AHS spokesperson Jennifer Green said in a statement to CBC News.
"It was estimated approximately 300 people were in attendance inside the sanctuary. The church representatives acknowledged receipt of the closure order but indicated that they would disregard them.
"Next steps involve support from AHS Legal to continue the legal process."
Video of Sunday's service posted online shows worshippers — singing, and not wearing masks — standing shoulder to shoulder. The video shows performers, also not wearing masks, singing hymns before the crowd.
During his opening remarks, Pastor James Coates acknowledged his defiance of the closure order, and the presence of law enforcement at the service.
Coates asked his parishioners to stand and applaud the officers who had arrived to monitor the gathering.
"AHS doesn't like it when we cheer," Coates said on the video. "Because cheering is apparently a high-risk activity. No cheering; let's just stand and thank our law enforcement.
"We realize that what you guys do is a sacrifice and we thank you for that sacrifice, and it reminds us of the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ."
'The world is watching'
Coates told parishioners their decision to worship in defiance of the health order had served as an inspiration to other congregations. He said the church had not sought out attention but only intended to worship peacefully.
"I think any honest evaluation of the way that we've handled this season would indicate that we are trying to lead tranquil and quiet lives.
"We're not doing any kind of pomp and stance. We're not doing public announcements and drawing attention to the fact that we're gathering. We're just here to worship our Lord and Saviour peacefully, but the world is watching."
In his sermon, Coates told his parishioners they were protected by the prayers of others and by their faith.
"God's people are interceding on our behalf and we have the Lord Jesus Christ, who is also interceding on our behalf, and we know that, right now, there's a real sense in which heaven is very much aware of this moment. This gathering.
"If we could almost, if we could even see the angelic realm, we would see that we are protected by a legion of angels."
Coates did not respond to an email on Sunday requesting comment. Calls to the church Monday morning went unanswered.
A notice on the church's website said it is closed to the general public but remains open to GraceLife members in good standing, regular adherents and people going through its membership process. A calendar of events shows a series of morning worship services and prayer groups remain scheduled.
An inspection by AHS in December found that the church had exceeded its building capacity with a service of more than 290 attendees. Some people were not wearing masks in the lobby and the sanctuary, and physical distancing was not being maintained.
The AHS order also notes that the church had failed to submit a "relaunch plan" outlining the ways it would implement public health measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
The church was first ordered to create the plan and abide by the province's COVID-19 guidelines on Dec. 17.
At the time, Coates was issued a $1,200 ticket for contravening orders of Alberta's chief medical officer of health.
On Jan. 21, a Court of Queen's Bench judge issued a ruling finding that the Dec. 17 order was enforceable.
GraceLife isn't the only Alberta church that has defied public health orders.
Its sister church, Grace Bible Fellowship in La Crete, published a recording of a sermon by Pastor Mike Hovland in December, 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.