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GraceLife: How an Edmonton-area church became the centre of Alberta's COVID-19 fight

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2021-04-14 Jonny Wakefield
a group of people that are standing in the snow: A few in attendance tried to rip down the fencing as police stand their ground while a crowd of about 400 gathered outside GraceLife Church on the first Sunday after the closure west of the Edmonton city limits, April 11, 2021. © Ed Kaiser A few in attendance tried to rip down the fencing as police stand their ground while a crowd of about 400 gathered outside GraceLife Church on the first Sunday after the closure west of the Edmonton city limits, April 11, 2021.
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Last June, GraceLife Church of Edmonton emerged from the first wave of COVID-19 like thousands of other Albertans: hopeful, a bit wary, ready to adapt to the new normal.

“Hello GraceLife family!” church elders wrote in a June 19, 2020, bulletin. Like countless faith groups, GraceLife had moved to online services at the pandemic’s outset. But with the Alberta government easing restrictions , the church opted — “after consideration, discussion, and prayer” — to reopen in-person worship that Sunday.

The bulletin laid out how church leaders decided to return to “nearly normal,” and the safety measures that would be taken to prevent outbreaks. Congregants were asked to refrain from hugs and handshakes. People with symptoms were asked to stay home. The church balcony would be opened for those wanting to socially distance, while the nursery would remain closed.

“For those who are returning, it is important that we remain responsible and take reasonable measures to limit the spread of the virus,” wrote church leaders.

Fast forward 10 months, and GraceLife is the ultimate COVID-19 scofflaw, or a paragon of religious liberty, depending who you ask . The church continued to hold over-capacity indoor services throughout COVID’s second wave, despite surging infections and multiple public health orders mandating limits on in-person worship. Pastor James Coates spent 35 days in remand for repeatedly refusing to abide by the rules.

a person standing in front of a fence:  A fence has gone up around GraceLife Church and security is on scene to keep church members away on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 . © Provided by Edmonton Journal A fence has gone up around GraceLife Church and security is on scene to keep church members away on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 .

The story took another dramatic turn April 7 when Alberta Health Services ordered GraceLife closed, preventing access to the building by erecting layers of fencing around the property.

How did GraceLife — a once little-known church on the outskirts of Edmonton — become such a flashpoint in Alberta’s battle against COVID-19? And how did authorities decide — after months of waiting — to finally take such dramatic action?

This story attempts to answer those questions.

‘Inerrant and infallible’

GraceLife Church sits a few minutes west of Edmonton on a plot of land in Parkland County, across a field from a corn maze and down the road from an RV storage facility.

GraceLife, as the church has been known since 2012, was formally incorporated in November 2005 as Grace Reformed Baptist Church of Edmonton. The church’s chairman and founder, Paul Claassen, is a retired RCMP officer who worked as a sergeant in the Edmonton-based technological crimes section.

GraceLife is formally non-denominational and adheres to a literal interpretation of the Bible, which its roughly 400 congregants believe is “the authoritative, inerrant, infallible, and supremely sufficient Word of God.”

Unlike more mainline protestant denominations and some evangelical groups, GraceLife and its associated churches believe that the human authors of the Bible received direct, divine guidance, and that, through a “literal grammatical-historical” analysis, a believer can discern a passage’s “one true interpretation.”

A significant part of GraceLife’s theological foundation was laid at The Master’s Seminary, a theological school in Los Angeles, California. Coates is a graduate (he holds both master’s and doctoral degrees), as are associate pastor Jacob Spenst and Mike Hovland, pastor of a “plant” church in La Crete, a hamlet 600 km north of Edmonton.

John F. MacArthur et al. performing on a counter:  Screenshot of Master’s Seminary Founder John MacArthur. Screenshot of Master’s Seminary Founder John MacArthur.

Master’s Seminary was founded in 1986 by John MacArthur , an 81-year-old evangelical pastor who preaches at Grace Community Church, a megachurch that shares a campus with the seminary. Sections of GraceLife’s bylaws are borrowed directly from those of Grace Community Church. MacArthur has repeatedly praised Coates’ actions from the pulpit.

A radio and television host and author of numerous books, MacArthur holds considerable sway in evangelical circles. Graduates from his programs go on to lead churches around the world. The seminary website  lists hundreds of “trusted” churches with ties to alumni. One graduate, Adam Tyson, has given sermons at rapper Kanye West’s Sunday Services.

Coates became a pastor at GraceLife in 2010. Through his legal team, he declined an interview. A spokeswoman for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) said Coates was granting “a limited number of interviews with select media outlets that have provided fair, unbiased, balanced and accurate coverage of GraceLife Church.” Since his imprisonment, Coates has given interviews to Rebel News, while his wife Erin appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program.

‘A measure of scrutiny’

On March 12, 2020, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced Alberta’s first COVID-19 health restrictions , banning gatherings of more than 250 people — with places of worship among the exceptions.

GraceLife publicly acknowledged the pandemic for the first time the following day.

“We can have full assurance and confidence that our God knows what is going on, and has a purpose for these times we are going through,” church leadership wrote in a bulletin.

“Nevertheless, we understand our role in being prudent leaders and want to ensure the health and safety of each member to the best extent possible.”

a close up of a bottle on the counter:  Face masks and hand sanitizer in the lobby of GraceLife Church in Parkland County, Alberta. The church defied Alberta government public gathering restrictions on the weekend and held a church service where almost 300 people attended, many without face masks and ignoring social distancing regulations. © Larry Wong Face masks and hand sanitizer in the lobby of GraceLife Church in Parkland County, Alberta. The church defied Alberta government public gathering restrictions on the weekend and held a church service where almost 300 people attended, many without face masks and ignoring social distancing regulations.

Later that month, two days after Alberta reduced gathering limits to 15 people and ordered the closure of “non-essential” businesses, Coates recorded a message for GraceLife members. In it, he acknowledged church leaders were “wrestling” with what to do. As in all his pronouncements, Coates cited scripture. Romans Chapter 13 commands believers “to submit to the governing authorities, recognizing that they’ve been given authority from God,” he acknowledged. But the Book of Hebrews, on the other hand, “exhorts us not to forsake the gathering of the saints.”

That March, after much debate, the church chose compliance. Coates argued compliance was the correct course at that time because of the health concerns, and because authorities were not individually targeting or persecuting GraceLife. “It’s not as though the church is being singled out in any way, shape, or form.”

“There is precedent throughout history — even in the time of the Puritans — where there’s agreement that not gathering in a context like this is appropriate,” he added. “So we believe, at this point in time, that compliance with the governing authorities is the best thing that we can do.”

Coates also revealed that Alberta Health Services had already received a complaint about the size of GraceLife’s worship services.

“We were in compliance,” he insisted. “Nevertheless, it’s good for you (the congregation) to know that, because you can understand that we are going to receive a measure of scrutiny.”

Return to worship

On June 9, the Alberta government entered Stage 2 of its relaunch plan  and lifted capacity restrictions on in-person worship.

GraceLife returned to in-person services on June 21. In an affidavit sworn in January, Coates detailed the safety measures GraceLife took for its return to worship. Church leadership ceased passing the offering plate, modified how they distribute the Lord’s Supper, and purchased masks and hand sanitizer — “leaving it to each congregant to make their own informed decision.”

The June 19 bulletin stressed that COVID infections were nevertheless a real risk — one that had “the potential to draw negative public attention to GraceLife.”

Still, there were signs that GraceLife was bucking under government restrictions. In his affidavit, Coates said the church’s initial move to online worship was a product of “ignorance with respect to COVID-19 and its severity.” He latched onto Premier Jason Kenney’s references to COVID as an “ influenza ” that usually only kills the sick and elderly.

a man wearing a suit and tie:  Pastor James Coates: Screenshot of GraceLife Church video. © Provided by Edmonton Journal Pastor James Coates: Screenshot of GraceLife Church video.

The congregation had its first brush with COVID a few weeks after reopening. In early July, GraceLife leaders learned that a “handful” of congregants had tested positive, Coates said in his affidavit. After others were tested, “it was determined” by church leaders that no transmission had taken place at their Sunday gatherings. Still, as a precaution, GraceLife postponed in-person worship services for two weeks and made its own attempts at contact tracing.

Alberta Health Services says it has received no reports of outbreaks at GraceLife since the pandemic began. AHS has different definitions of what constitutes a COVID outbreak depending on the setting. In a church setting like GraceLife, AHS will publicly report an outbreak when there are 10 cases  linked to a common source of exposure within a four-week span.

Alberta’s contact tracing system, however, buckled under the load of new cases last fall , and it is unclear the extent to which GraceLife has cooperated with AHS if and when cases arise (AHS declined to comment and Coates’ lawyers did not respond to an inquiry).

Two more significant events in the GraceLife story took place that July.

The first is the church’s first public health inspection, which took place July 10. According to AHS, the inspection was in response to a complaint from the public, “and violations were observed at each visit.”

The other was Master’s Seminary founder John MacArthur’s decision late that month to resume in-person services  at Grace Community Church. The church defied California public health rules and held services with no occupancy limits and scant public health measures.

“People started slowly coming back,” MacArthur told CNN, “and they just kept coming until there were six or seven thousand.”

The second wave

Alberta’s second wave was the worst in Canada . Cases began their upward swing in September and surged through the fall and early winter. It wasn’t until Nov. 24, after alarming growth in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths, that the Alberta government declared a second state of public health emergency and began to layer on mandatory new restrictions.

Kenney — a practicing  Catholic — capped worship services at one-third of fire code occupancy, with physical distancing and masking, but stressed that he was loathe to interfere with people’s private lives.

“I certainly didn’t go into public service — nor did any of the people sitting around our cabinet table — in order to impose restrictions on how people live their lives,” he said.

“To be clear, this will not affect the vast majority of faith communities who are already respecting the physical distancing guidelines,” he said. “But it will make it clear that these are no longer just guidelines, and that this is not optional.”

“We believe this approach balances the Charter-protected, fundamental right to freedom of religion, with the public health imperative.”

Alberta announced new restrictions on  Dec. 8 , including a provision limiting places of worship  to 15 per cent capacity, the rule which remains in place today.

Up to this point, much of the GraceLife controversy had taken place behind the scenes. That changed in December. Postmedia first mentioned the church in a story about how Christian groups were preparing to celebrate Christmas under the new restrictions. The story noted GraceLife had been ordered to comply with COVID-19 requirements after health inspectors saw unmasked attendees mingling with members of other households.

graphical user interface:  An Alberta Health Services notice was posted at the front door of GraceLife Church in Parkland County, Alberta on Monday February 1, 2021. The church defied Alberta government public gathering restrictions on the weekend and held a church service where almost 300 people attended, many without face masks and ignoring social distancing regulations. © Larry Wong An Alberta Health Services notice was posted at the front door of GraceLife Church in Parkland County, Alberta on Monday February 1, 2021. The church defied Alberta government public gathering restrictions on the weekend and held a church service where almost 300 people attended, many without face masks and ignoring social distancing regulations.

Police and health inspectors had been attending GraceLife off and on since the summer. On Dec. 13, two RCMP cruisers and an Alberta government vehicle pulled into the parking lot after worship services began. Robert Chomiak, a greeter and parking lot attendant, confronted the officials alongside two other GraceLife members. Eventually, and over their protests, the officials entered the church.

The scene, which Chomiak described in an affidavit, was tense. Congregants began filming the officers with their cell phones. The health inspector asked to observe the service, which she did from the balcony. After taking a few photos the congregation — again over the GraceLife members’ protests — she left.

On December 17, public health inspector Janine Hanrahan issued an order instructing GraceLife to adhere to occupancy limits, social distancing and masking rules. The RCMP also issued Coates a $1,200 ticket under the Public Health Act.

The back and forth continued after the holidays. On January 21, the Court of Queen’s Bench granted an AHS application giving teeth to Hanrahan’s Dec. 17 order. The next Sunday, Hanrahan and two RCMP officer attended GraceLife and once again found the church packed. From the balcony, she counted 293 worshipers in the sanctuary (a space for which 15 per cent capacity is 64 people). Coates acknowledged their presence and asked the congregation to “show appreciation for them.” The crowd stood to cheer and clap — “a high risk activity for droplet spread, especially from unmasked individuals,” Hanrahan noted in her report.

“So-called ‘pandemic'”

On January 29, Hanrahan ordered GraceLife closed until it complied with public health orders. But 10 more Sundays would pass before the order was enforced.

GraceLife’s profile continued to grow through February. On February 7, it posted a message to the public on its website, questioning the science behind public health measures. Church leaders had begun using quotation marks when referring to the “pandemic,” saying that based on an “immense amount of research,” they had concluded that the science supporting COVID-19 restrictions “is both suspect and selective.”

“By the time the so-called ‘pandemic’ is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent,” the message concludes.

Coates was arrested after church that same day and charged with breaching the Public Health Act. According to an affidavit filed by Erin Coates, the discussion took place in his office after the worship service. Officers presented him with a legal undertaking ordering him to appear in court, and, in the meantime, to abide by the Public Health Act.

Coates refused to sign.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd:  Followers of Pastor James Coates gather outside the Edmonton courthouse where he was scheduled for a hearing regarding his release conditions. Coates is in remand after failing to comply with public health regulations at his GraceLife Church near Spruce Grove. © Provided by Edmonton Journal Followers of Pastor James Coates gather outside the Edmonton courthouse where he was scheduled for a hearing regarding his release conditions. Coates is in remand after failing to comply with public health regulations at his GraceLife Church near Spruce Grove.

The next week, after leading another service, Coates turned himself into Parkland RCMP, where police added two additional counts under the Public Health Act and a charge of failing to comply with an undertaking. When he again refused to sign the document, Coates was jailed at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

Over the next 35 days, interest in the case surged. Jason Kenney found himself the target of a growing backlash  from both allies of Coates, and from opponents wondering why the church was being allowed to continue breaking the rules. Nathan Busenitz, dean of faculty at Master’s Seminary, issued a statement on behalf of the school comparing Coates to Biblical martyrs throughout history. GraceLife was charged as a legal entity but continued to meet, its attendance as high as it had ever been.

On March 4, the JCCF asked the Court of Queen’s to review of Coates’ bail conditions . James Kitchen, Coates’ lawyer, argued the condition that Coates not hold church services violated his Charter rights.

Kitchen noted that even if Coates was convicted of the COVID-related offences, none of the offences under the Public Health Act carry a prison sentence.

The hearing took place by video conference and was attended by hundreds of Coates supporters. Others rallied outside the courthouse. The prosecutor took the unusual step of withholding her name, citing “some security (issues) that have arisen on this matter.”

The next day, Justice Peter Michalyshyn denied the Coates’ request, ruling there were no legal errors in the initial bail decision.

“He remains subject to the rule of law,” Michalyshyn concluded.

Coates released from jail

Coates was released from jail March 22 after agreeing to plead guilty to breaching an undertaking. In exchange, the Crown withdrew all but one Public Health Act charge.

Crown and defence lawyers proposed a $100 fine for the breach, but Judge Jeffrey Champion balked. He took the unusual step of refusing to accept the joint submission, instead imposing a $1,500 fine (paid for by Coates’ time behind bars.)

He also admonished Coates, telling him his services risked becoming “super spreaders.” 

“Your decision could have been of danger to the health and safety of those in the community, ” he said.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd:  Pastor James Coates walks out of the Remand Centre greeted by a group of supporters after being released from the facility late Monday afternoon in Edmonton, March 22, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia © Ed Kaiser Pastor James Coates walks out of the Remand Centre greeted by a group of supporters after being released from the facility late Monday afternoon in Edmonton, March 22, 2021. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia

Coates intends to challenge the constitutionality of the Public Health Act restrictions at his trial in May. Patrick Hart, a professor of religious studies at the University of Alberta, said the consensus among constitutional experts is that what’s happened at GraceLife is a fairly obvious breach of Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, Section 1 allows governments to infringe on certain rights, if those limits can be “demonstrably justified.” Most scholars agree a pandemic is a prime example of a case where reasonable limits can be placed on in-person worship, said Hart.

“There might be Charter breaches all over the place, and I don’t think that there’s any question here that there was one, but it doesn’t matter, if it’s justified under Section 1.”

A few days after his release, Coates made a triumphant return to GraceLife, taking the pulpit to thunderous applause. He thanked the congregation, his associate pastors, Master’s Seminary, Grace Community Church and John MacArthur.

The following weekend — Easter Sunday — was the last service GraceLife held before the fences went up. By now, RCMP had revealed they had no authority to physically close the church, and that the power lay solely with AHS. AHS continued to be mum on the issue, declining as recently as March 28 to answer any questions about enforcement options should GraceLife continue on its course.

Around dawn on April 7, a convoy of RCMP vehicles escorted a fleet of trucks up the church driveway. By 8 a.m., crews had erected metal fences covered in black hoarding around GraceLife. Private security arrived, and by noon the driveway was also behind fencing. The JCCF expressed outrage. Protesters arrived. AHS, for its part, said 18 inspections, 105 complaints and numerous enforcement orders had failed to achieve results. A March 27 letter to Coates about the increasing spread of more infectious COVID variants went unanswered.

“(GraceLife) has decided not to follow these mandatory restrictions, nor have they attempted to work with AHS to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” AHS’s statement said.

On April 7, Jason Kenney gave an interview to CBC News around the time the fences were going up. He said political officials “do not and should not” have a hand in the individual enforcement actions of police and public health agencies.

He added, however: “I understand there may be action coming in some cases, and I would just say stay tuned on that.”

GraceLife’s closure added to the already considerable tensions in the governing United Conservative Party caucus over the province’s latest COVID restrictions, which Kenney announced last week in response to a new wave of variant-driven infections.

Seventeen MLAs have publicly criticized the measures. On Saturday, the Western Standard cited an unnamed UCP MLA who claimed Health Minister Tyler Shandro personally signed off on the “raid” at GraceLife. Steve Buick, Shandro’s press secretary, denied the claim.

“Minister Shandro did not direct or sign off (on) this action,” he said in an email.

a group of people riding skis on a snowy street:  People walked in from kilometres away to the crowd of about 400 gathered outside GraceLife Church on the first Sunday after the closure west of the Edmonton city limits, April 11, 2021. © Ed Kaiser People walked in from kilometres away to the crowd of about 400 gathered outside GraceLife Church on the first Sunday after the closure west of the Edmonton city limits, April 11, 2021.

Several hundred people protested outside GraceLife the Sunday after its closure, April 11. One carried a cross. A few led Bible readings and songs. Few wore masks. Some wore shirts claiming the pandemic is a hoax. Others shouted “fake news” at members of the media, most of whom attended with private security.

Around noon, some of the more aggressive elements rushed the perimeter and tore down sections of fencing, which police quickly replaced. Some of the protesters condemned the action, chanting “leave the fence” at the unruly members of the crowd.

The protest stoked tensions with Enoch Cree Nation, which has territory north of the highway near GraceLife. Chief Billy Morin streamed a confrontation with protesters who had parked on the nation’s territory.

“Although I respect GraceLife protesters’ right to protest, right to worship, and right to free speech, I strongly condemn their illegal trespassing on our land, their vandalization of a nation member’s vehicle, and their blatant disrespect of our sovereignty as a proud First Nation,” Morin said in a statement.

According to GraceLife, few if any of those gathered Sunday were church members. The JCCF issued a statement on the church’s behalf, saying congregants “were not at the protest.” Many came from out of town, including a convoy of self-styled “patriots” from Calgary.

Church members were instead meeting at a secret location that day. In video of the service, Coates stands before a slate grey background, the shot closely cropped to avoid giving away the location.  “They can take our facility but we’ll just find another one,” he said, to cheers and applause.

From his pulpit in L.A., John MacArthur praised the move.

“GraceLife Church up in Alberta, Canada, is meeting somewhere — we don’t know where,” MacArthur said at the opening of the service. “James Coates said at this point it’s not for the public to know. Amazing to have an underground church in Canada.”

‘Churches that aren’t churches’

Robin Willey, a professor who teaches sociology of religion at Concordia University of Edmonton, said the GraceLife controversy is in part a product of how the evangelical movement in North American has grown in the last 20 years.

Independent churches like GraceLife aren’t subject to the sort of formal hierarchy that other churches operate under.

A Presbyterian pastor defying COVID rules, or a Catholic priest, would be answerable to their church hierarchy, he said. Not so in many evangelical churches, which, like GraceLife, are increasingly independent entities based around a charismatic leader.

In those situations, the webs of influence tend to be more informal. In this case, Willey says MacArthur’s church seems to be at the centre of the web.

“Basically, they (GraceLife) have done everything that Grace Community Church in L.A. did,” Willey said. “They actually use the words of governing officials to legitimize their own rejection and questioning of the pandemic. So it seems like the playbook was all laid out.”

Austin Doucette is a theology student in California’s Simi Valley who, until recently, attended Master’s Seminary.

He believes the GraceLife controversy, which he has followed from 1,700 km away, is partly a result of attitudes inculcated at his former school. Doucette withdrew from Master’s after his most recent semester because of its attitude toward the pandemic.

“The same kind of pandemic denial rhetoric that comes from the pulpit of John MacArthur at Grace Church was also being pushed at the school,” said Doucette. “So no one would wear masks, or very few people would wear masks, and no one took it seriously. They didn’t enforce any kind of social distancing in classes, or mask wearing at all.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the seminary said: “the school has COVID-19 protocols in place. We don’t want to argue with Mr. Doucette’s perspective on them.”

When Doucette wore a mask, he could tell some of the faculty felt uncomfortable. Their discomfort with mask wearing didn’t stem from their religious views: to Doucette, it felt like bullying.

“It was really not based on any kind of theology,” he said. “It was honestly just mimicking a lot of the rhetoric of Trump, and kind of the far right. It was really the same talking points and arguments they would use.”

Nevertheless, Doucette says Master’s graduates he knows have diverse views on the pandemic. Some continue to meet online and take steps to limit the spread of disease. Others, like Coates and MacArthur, rail against the authorities. It is the latter who are getting the support from their alma mater, Doucette said.

“These churches who are still meeting online, they’re seen as almost, like, weaker — like you’re a weak church if you don’t meet in person.”

At the end of Coates’ first interview after his incarceration, with Rebel News, he was asked if he had a message for pastors who have complied with COVID-19 rules.

“Well that’s difficult,” he said. “Because just because a building has the title ‘church’ on it doesn’t mean it’s a true church. And to the extent that churches that aren’t churches are closed, I can take some joy in that. I don’t want false churches to be open.”

Coates’ trial on the remaining Public Health Act charge is set for May 3.

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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