Churches were allowed to remain open at 15% of capacity under current provincial rules, but an order issued by Alberta Health Services on December 17 alleges Edmonton GraceLife Church in Parkland County was not following guidelines. related guidelines. According to order, some church staff, volunteers and attendees were unmasked, and people were socializing and not distancing themselves in the lobby.
Inspectors said the benches were mostly full and people from different households did not appear distant. One group reportedly performed without a mask or distance, and the report said the 15% capacity may have been exceeded as it did not appear that anyone was counting people entering the building.
The AHS order directs the church to make sure people mask themselves, distance themselves, and capacity rules are followed. The church was also told to complete a “stimulus package”.
Pastor James Coates did not respond to an email Monday requesting an interview, but a notice on GraceLife Church’s website said that due to orders from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, the establishment is closed to the general public and open only to members, regular members and those in the process of membership.
On December 15, another GraceLife church, the Grace Bible Fellowship of Crete, released a recording of a sermon by Pastor Mike Hovland, in which he described the province’s public health restrictions as “tyranny” and advised church members to ignore the rules served. to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
Hovland did not respond to an email Monday requesting an interview.
He told the parishioners that it was up to each of them to make up their minds and follow their conscience.
“Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves, but I say our fellowship and our worship are far too important to obey for us to obey these mandates,” Hovland said. “I’m saying the government has gone beyond its authority that God has given it. I say that it is our duty to obey God, to resist tyranny and to submit to whatever he decides to do to us ”.
He said “most of us” have had COVID-19 before, presumably referring to his congregation.
Over the summer, health officials confirmed they were making efforts to increase awareness among residents of La Crete, a small community in Mackenzie County in northwestern Alberta. At the time, the county had become a COVID-19 hotspot. Alberta Health data on Monday 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 thought the masks were “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 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In June, the World Health Organization funded a study in which researchers looked at 172 studies on the effectiveness of masks, eye protection, and physical distance in reducing the spread of COVID-19, and found that the measures work.
Hovland also questioned whether the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 was significant. In the past 10 months, 860 Albertans have died from COVID-19.
“Start with education”
In an update in early November, Dr Deena Hinshaw noted that over the past four influenza seasons, the maximum number of deaths recorded in a full year was 92.
Asked about GraceLife churches during her press conference on Monday, Hinshaw said the province has spent months working collaboratively with religious communities across the province. She said it went well in most cases, but there were still opportunities to try and build bridges.
“At the end of the day, when a group puts their community at risk, of course we start with education,” she said. “We start by offering support. This is always how public health teams start to get involved.
“But if groups continue to make decisions that put their communities at risk – not just those who can attend these services or who attend a particular event or gathering, but those actions put their community at risk – then unfortunately sometimes things have to move. in an execution category. ”
She said the majority of religious leaders in Alberta have shown leadership in ensuring their communities have accurate information.
“In my opinion, COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to make choices about how we take care of each other,” she said. “And the measures in place now are the best way to take care of our neighbors and our communities. ”
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 rally in Calgary over the weekend, several charges were laid, including assaulting a police officer.
On Monday, a Calgary judge dismissed an emergency request from two churches in southern Alberta and a gym owner seeking to suspend Alberta’s public health restrictions.
Lawyers for the plaintiff group have filed a challenge in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, arguing that the province’s COVID-19 restrictions violate the constitutional rights of their clients. The group had asked Judge Anne Kirker to issue an injunction ahead of her hearing on the constitutionality of the restrictions, but she concluded the risk of COVID-19 was real and said granting the stay would not be in. the public interest.
In an interview about the request, an expert on constitutional law said such challenges had a “low possibility” of success because the charter allows governments to have a broad mandate to act during crises.