Hundreds rally outside Alberta church closed by health officials

Hundreds of people demonstrated Sunday morning outside the shuttered GraceLife Church west of Edmonton.

Alberta Health Services closed the church last week after it repeatedly defied public health orders, often with hundreds of people attending services. Chain link fences were set up around the site in Parkland County.

The crowd gathered along the road adjacent to the church on Sunday. Among the signs were messages decrying vaccines and public health restrictions.

An increased police presence by the RCMP included additional traffic enforcement officers deployed to the area. 

Police said in a statement they would only use the level of intervention necessary to ensure safety and maintain peace, order and security. Officers were present at a barricade on the road leading to the church.

Dozens of police vehicles shut off access to roads around the church while a large line of at least 30 officers faced the outer fence. 

There was a tense moment around noon when a group splintered from the crowd and tore down part of the fence. RCMP and others from the crowd pushed back the group and re-established the fence.

The crowd began to disperse shortly before 2 p.m.

RCMP deployed additional officers during the demonstration at GraceLife Church on Sunday. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

In a media statement Wednesday, AHS said it had “physically closed” the church and would prevent access until the church “can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s chief medical officer of health’s restrictions.”

Between July 10 last year and Tuesday of last week, AHS said it has received 105 complaints from the public about the church.

AHS said inspectors have conducted 18 inspections at the site since July 10, 2020, and violations were observed at each visit. 

GraceLife’s Pastor James Coates was charged in February with violating COVID-19 public health orders. 

After he was charged, Coates was jailed for refusing to comply with a bail condition that he only hold services in compliance with public health orders. In early March, his lawyers appealed with the argument that it would go against the pastor’s conscience before God not to lead worshippers.

Coates spent 35 days in custody before pleading guilty to a charge of breaching bail and was fined $1,500. He returned to the pulpit on March 28.

The church was also charged as an entity for exceeding allowable capacity at Sunday services in February.

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