Gracelife Church of Edmonton defies closure order, holds in-person service after pastor charged by RCMP

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A Parkland County church continued to allow people into their morning service today after weeks of defying public health orders and recently having a pastor arrested for his role in past gatherings.

The parking lot of Gracelife Church of Edmonton, located three kilometres west of the city limit on Highway 627 east of Highway 60, was filled with vehicles prior to the weekly Sunday service. A check stop was set-up at the entrance to the church and several vehicles were seen passing through shortly before 10:30 a.m. and as the sermon began inside cars had begun parking on the side of the drive-up to the church and on a neighbouring road.

Two ‘no visitors allowed’ signs were seen at the entrance to the parking lot outside the check stop. Postmedia was told to stand off the property and was referred to the church’s website after asking for comment from workers.

The church’s website states that they followed restrictions in the early days of the pandemic and moved their sermons online. However, when restrictions were lifted last summer, they returned to in-person gatherings.

“We did so recognizing COVID-19 was much less severe than the government had initially projected,” reads the online statement. “This sentiment was reflected in the assessment of the Premier of Alberta, who deliberately referred to COVID-19 as ‘influenza’ multiple times in a speech announcing the end of the first declared public health emergency.”

The statement goes on to argue lockdowns are more harmful than COVID-19.

As of Saturday, there were 5,271 active cases of COVID-19 in the province and 359 people are receiving hospital care with the virus. There have been 1,775 deaths from COVID-19 in Alberta since the start of the pandemic.

Premier Jason Kenney announced a re-opening plan last month that will see various stages allowing more gatherings and social activities as hospitalizations drop. Alberta is currently in Stage 1 of the plan. Faith services are currently limited to 15 per cent of their buildings’ fire code when gathering.

GraceLife Church of Edmonton has continued to open each Sunday to large crowds despite those restrictions being in place. They were issued an immediate closure order from AHS in January, as well as a Court of Queen’s Bench order and last week the RCMP arrested Pastor James Coates. He was charged in contravention of the Public Health Act for being over capacity and failing to adhere to physical distancing requirements.

In December, a violation ticket was issued to the pastor, police said, and on Feb. 7, he was arrested and released with a court appearance date.

Coates was back at the church Sunday delivering a sermon that was livestreamed on YouTube. Large parts of his sermon were centred around persecution, the government and theology.

“I’m doing what I’m doing in obedience to Christ. I am quite content to let the Lord Jesus Christ himself decide whether or not this is persecution,” Coates said during the sermon. “He promises that those who are persecuted for his namesake will be blessed. He’s the one that blesses and I’m content to leave that in his court.”

Since early December, RCMP have been working with Alberta Health Services (AHS) in an ongoing investigation into the non-compliance of the church.

Parkland RCMP issued a statement Sunday afternoon saying they were at the church in the morning to ensure they did not go over the 15-per-cent capacity limit. Police confirmed Gracelife Church did not comply with AHS regulations.

In response, RCMP are furthering their investigation into the church and Coates, and are expected to release an update this week.

“To be very clear, the RCMP’s objective is not to interrupt church services, prohibit services, nor deny peoples’ right to practice their religion — merely to ensure that public health restrictions are adhered to while doing so,” Insp. Mike Lokken, the RCMP detachment commander, said in the Sunday statement.