COVID culture war: How Alberta’s GraceLife Church and its pastor became flashpoints for growing tensions over health restrictions

It’s a fight that has all the trappings of a culture-war showdown: claims of persecution, crowds tearing down fences, shoutouts from reality stars, a pastor sent to jail.A cavernous church on the outskirts of Edmonton has played host to a months-long battle between public health officers and those breaking pandemic rules in the name of religious freedom.But in recent days, the tone of protest has turned darker. Dozens of the people who showed up to pray and carry a giant cross in protest of the forced closure of GraceLife Church this past weekend also ripped down barricades and trespassed on a neighbouring First Nation, some vandalizing a vehicle and hurling racial epithets at residents. The next day, a crowd at a rally where the case of the church was at times raised shouted for Alberta’s top doctor to be locked up.Even Premier Jason Kenney, who has repeatedly lamented the need to impose COVID-19 restrictions on his province, appears fed up. He lambasted “unhinged conspiracy theorists,” hours after the protest outside the legislature in Edmonton turned ugly Monday. There’s no question that, heading into a second pandemic year, lockdown measures are being met with pockets of pushback from coast to coast, as business owners in Old Montreal, reeling from the aftermath of Sunday’s riots, can attest.But in Alberta, frustrations have seemingly tapped into a baked-in distrust of government regulation. Dissent has been egged on, observers say, by a government that downplayed the danger of a global pandemic and by a furious alt-right movement hungry for a cause. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to rise, with Alberta recording more cases per capita in the past week than anywhere in the country, according to Health Canada.The particular flashpoint has been GraceLife Church, located in an area of mostly fields about a half-hour’s drive southwest of Edmonton. The warehouse-like building sits near a potato farm and RV storage facility and next to a popular corn maze, where families buy pumpkins and get lost among the stalks every fall.Late last year, the church continued to welcome hundreds of people, many maskless, inside for Sunday services, despite provincial rules that religious facilities stick to gatherings of 15 per cent of their capacity. The continued services prompted several orders from Alberta’s health authority. Eventually, Pastor James Coates went to jail for 35 days, and the building now stands surrounded by fencing put up by the authorities as the government insists the church stays closed.Coates, a clean-cut red head with glasses, has largely avoided interviews with the mainstream media — he is currently focused on family, was the response to an email from the Star — but videos posted to the church’s YouTube channel show him as an intense speaker at a wooden pulpit, preaching scripture into a tiny headset microphone.According to the church’s website, theirs is an evangelical congregation that has adopted the Bible as its road map, saying that “there is but one true interpretation” of the book, which is “God’s written revelation to man.”“Our aim is not to please men, nor follow worldly practices; rather, we aim to please our Lord and Master, the Head of the church, Jesus Christ,” the website reads.In a video of a sermon posted online in mid-February, Coates takes aim at churches that have moved their services to Zoom during the pandemic, calling their understanding of theology “deficient.”“Unless scripture states, quote, thou shalt meet on Sunday,” he says, imagining the thinking of other churches, “in one gathering, in person, ensuring that all interaction takes place within six feet of the other person without a mask and with some kind of physical affection, whether it be a hug or a handshake, end-quote, we’re off the hook,” he says, to muted laughter.“Government isn’t commanding us to sin, therefore we must obey.”The church also questions the science behind public health measures. A public statement posted to the website in February called the evidence for lockdowns “suspect and selective.” The note said the congregation shifted online at the beginning of the pandemic and for a few weeks last summer, when two people tested positive for COVID-19.The congregation returned to “nearly normal” gatherings last June, when they say cases were less severe than the government projected. The note also cites a number of anti-lockdown arguments that have been refuted by public health experts, including that PCR tests are “fraught” with false positives, that most deaths were “likely” due to co-morbidities, and that most people with COVID-19 “fully” recover.The statement also argues Kenney has admitted the pandemic was not as severe as expected.“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 note says.The Justice Centre for Constitutional

COVID culture war: How Alberta’s GraceLife Church and its pastor became flashpoints for growing tensions over health restrictions

It’s a fight that has all the trappings of a culture-war showdown: claims of persecution, crowds tearing down fences, shoutouts from reality stars, a pastor sent to jail.

A cavernous church on the outskirts of Edmonton has played host to a months-long battle between public health officers and those breaking pandemic rules in the name of religious freedom.

But in recent days, the tone of protest has turned darker. Dozens of the people who showed up to pray and carry a giant cross in protest of the forced closure of GraceLife Church this past weekend also ripped down barricades and trespassed on a neighbouring First Nation, some vandalizing a vehicle and hurling racial epithets at residents. The next day, a crowd at a rally where the case of the church was at times raised shouted for Alberta’s top doctor to be locked up.

Even Premier Jason Kenney, who has repeatedly lamented the need to impose COVID-19 restrictions on his province, appears fed up. He lambasted “unhinged conspiracy theorists,” hours after the protest outside the legislature in Edmonton turned ugly Monday.

There’s no question that, heading into a second pandemic year, lockdown measures are being met with pockets of pushback from coast to coast, as business owners in Old Montreal, reeling from the aftermath of Sunday’s riots, can attest.

But in Alberta, frustrations have seemingly tapped into a baked-in distrust of government regulation. Dissent has been egged on, observers say, by a government that downplayed the danger of a global pandemic and by a furious alt-right movement hungry for a cause. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to rise, with Alberta recording more cases per capita in the past week than anywhere in the country, according to Health Canada.

The particular flashpoint has been GraceLife Church, located in an area of mostly fields about a half-hour’s drive southwest of Edmonton. The warehouse-like building sits near a potato farm and RV storage facility and next to a popular corn maze, where families buy pumpkins and get lost among the stalks every fall.

Late last year, the church continued to welcome hundreds of people, many maskless, inside for Sunday services, despite provincial rules that religious facilities stick to gatherings of 15 per cent of their capacity. The continued services prompted several orders from Alberta’s health authority. Eventually, Pastor James Coates went to jail for 35 days, and the building now stands surrounded by fencing put up by the authorities as the government insists the church stays closed.

Coates, a clean-cut red head with glasses, has largely avoided interviews with the mainstream media — he is currently focused on family, was the response to an email from the Star — but videos posted to the church’s YouTube channel show him as an intense speaker at a wooden pulpit, preaching scripture into a tiny headset microphone.

According to the church’s website, theirs is an evangelical congregation that has adopted the Bible as its road map, saying that “there is but one true interpretation” of the book, which is “God’s written revelation to man.”

“Our aim is not to please men, nor follow worldly practices; rather, we aim to please our Lord and Master, the Head of the church, Jesus Christ,” the website reads.

In a video of a sermon posted online in mid-February, Coates takes aim at churches that have moved their services to Zoom during the pandemic, calling their understanding of theology “deficient.”

“Unless scripture states, quote, thou shalt meet on Sunday,” he says, imagining the thinking of other churches, “in one gathering, in person, ensuring that all interaction takes place within six feet of the other person without a mask and with some kind of physical affection, whether it be a hug or a handshake, end-quote, we’re off the hook,” he says, to muted laughter.

“Government isn’t commanding us to sin, therefore we must obey.”

The church also questions the science behind public health measures. A public statement posted to the website in February called the evidence for lockdowns “suspect and selective.” The note said the congregation shifted online at the beginning of the pandemic and for a few weeks last summer, when two people tested positive for COVID-19.

The congregation returned to “nearly normal” gatherings last June, when they say cases were less severe than the government projected. The note also cites a number of anti-lockdown arguments that have been refuted by public health experts, including that PCR tests are “fraught” with false positives, that most deaths were “likely” due to co-morbidities, and that most people with COVID-19 “fully” recover.

The statement also argues Kenney has admitted the pandemic was not as severe as expected.

“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 note says.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, an advocacy organization that describes itself as “defending citizens’ fundamental freedoms,” responded to an email sent to the church seeking comment from Coates, saying it is representing the pastor and his church.

The email provided a statement attributed to Coates that read, in part, “We have demonstrated that the so-called medicine and science Government and (Alberta Health Services) are using to support their health orders are highly suspect and intensely theoretical.”

Alberta Health Services, the provincial health authority, issued its first order on Dec. 17, requiring the church to comply with public health restrictions. That was escalated to a closure order at the end of January. But every week, services continued while RCMP officers watched on, saying their role was to observe.

Then in February, Coates was charged under Alberta’s Public Health Act for holding services that allegedly broke a restriction on the size of gatherings. He remained in jail for more than a month for violating a bail condition that he comply with public health orders.

He eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of breaching bail, was fined $1,500, though a judge decided the 35 days he’d spent in custody were good enough. Coates is set to go to trial in May.

In a video posted to far-right website the Rebel after he was released, Coates recalled his time in the Edmonton’s Remand Centre, saying that when he left he waved goodbye and the men in their cells began to bang on their doors in a gesture of “support, love, (and) affection,” Coates recalled.

“I was with the chaplain when that happened, and he emailed me since and shared with me that he’ll never forget that moment. It was precious to me as well,” he said. “That just gives you a little bit of picture of the way that they thought toward me and treated me.”

The church’s fight has become a magnet for conservative religious activists and those who protest lockdowns — in Alberta and further afield.

The pastor’s wife, Erin Coates, told Tucker Carlson of Fox News last month that freedoms in Canada are being stripped away; while Jeremy Vuolo, husband of Jinger Vuolo, formerly Duggar, of “19 Kids and Counting” fame, has posted online in support of the jailed pastor. (When Coates was freed, the reality star tweeted a story along with the “preach” emoji.)

The church says there have been no cases of COVID-19 connected to their services since they began holding them again. Alberta Health Services has declined to comment on that point.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada and outspoken critic of public health measures, stopped by the church Monday, posting a video to Twitter, a road blockade visible in the background, in which he said he’d delayed his return to Montreal to express his “moral support” for Albertans burdened by “unfair and unconstitutional lockdowns.”

“The extreme right is looking for a cause to support, and it’s pretty hard to find them, in some ways, particularly in Canada,” says Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

“This is just an opportunity.”

Bernier also attended an anti-lockdown rally in Edmonton the day after the protest at the church.

The crowd met mentions of Alberta Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw with Trumpian chants of “lock her up,’” and responded to mentions of vaccines by switching to “just say no.”

The scene drew a sharp response from Kenney on Twitter — a notable measure from a politician who has tried to walk a very fine line during the pandemic between health protections and business and personal liberty.

“Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to respond to the threat of this pandemic. But spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories, and making threats is beyond the pale,” he tweeted.

The comments from the premier didn’t satisfy critics, who say he has sowed the seeds for some of the current dissent in his province.

This time last year, Young pointed out, Kenney was referring to COVID as an influenza-like disease.

“For several months, in the summer and early fall, we heard the premier diminishing the risks,” she said. “Talking about how the deaths were only elderly people, or people with comorbidities; really trying to lay the groundwork for a very limited public health response.”

While he’s since stressed the importance of rules that keep people safe, he’s continued to fend off criticism from both sides of the political aisle, including from his own MLAs, 17 of whom recently argued — publicly — that government restrictions in the face of climbing COVID-19 case numbers were too strict.

At the church this week, a small gathering of about eight church members and their supporters, armed only with camping chairs and coffee cups, stood in a circle outside the fenced-off perimeter.

Police parked their vehicles at the gate with an orange barricade and a handmade sign erected next to it which said: “Quarantine is when you restrict the movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people.”

One of those supporters, 23-year-old Josiah Barendregt, who is not a member of GraceLife, drove nearly five hours from Grande Prairie to Edmonton for the rally outside the legislature Monday before visiting the church.

“I don’t think our government is being malicious — I think they’re being stupid,” he told the Star. “I know that a lot of people are angry, and a lot of people are losing their jobs.”

Alberta has been hit hard by the double whammy of a pandemic and declining oil prices. For a couple of months last summer, the former boom province had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, at 15.5 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

When asked about Kenney addressing the “lock her up” chant directed at Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, he said he supported the sentiment behind the message.

“I don’t know if locking her up is the right course, right, but they need to understand that they are messing with people’s lives,” said Barendregt, who said he is a Christian and that he attends secretive gatherings his own church organizes.

Church members who were there Monday did not want to go on the record due to the looming court proceedings, but said they feel like they’re taking a stand against an overreaching government.

“What I hope to see is the cops walking off, the gates falling over, and the church reinstated,” said Barendregt. “I believe in the laws that were put forward in the charter, and I believe in justice, so I believe that they’ll win this court case that they’re in.”

Meanwhile, caught up in the dispute are members of the Enoch Cree Nation — separated from the church by a strip of highway — who were forced to contend this past weekend with protesters spilling onto their land to park, ignoring signs and going around blockages.

Some exchanges got heated Sunday and one person was arrested, leaving Chief Billy Morin to question what would have happened if the protesters hadn’t been mostly white.

“I take pride in myself being an Indigenous leader who builds bridges. But had this been reversed, my thought process has been, ‘Would this be another Colten Boushie situation?’” Boushie was an Indigenous man who was fatally shot while trespassing on a farm in Saskatchewan in 2016.

Morin points out that the Enoch Cree are facing the same pandemic restrictions — their businesses are shuttered, their church is operating at reduced capacity — and said he understands the anger at rules.

“We’re extremely frustrated, like every other Albertan,” he said. Yet they were still forced to spend a day dealing with trespassing, vandalism and harassment.

“But when we said, ‘You know, you’re on private property, this is a First Nation,’ the comments back to us were, ‘Well, First Nations seem to think they own everything,’ and ‘Are you a chief? That means you’re corrupt.’”

He maintains that his is a welcoming community, and one that is supportive of the right to protest but banded together once they realized there was an issue with people entering the community en masse without permission.

But the way in which he says the situation devolved into name calling — at one point, Morin’s grandmother’s house was surrounded by dozens of vehicles, and a man was arrested after shouting racial epithets at a councilwoman — suggests the current pushback has exposed something going on in Alberta that isn’t strictly about freedom.

“I think there’s an unfortunate group of people in Alberta who see this as an opportunity. ... It’s not just about COVID, it’s more about some, unfortunately, race relations and some societal differences,” he said. “Politics, left wing and right wing.”

He said he’d like to see stronger messaging from the government about the importance of public health rules and about how behaviour like this past weekend’s won’t be tolerated. For now, his community is setting up its own 24-hour security at its southern border.

“It would not surprise me if there was another protest next Sunday, but the nation is going to be better prepared.”

With files from The Canadian Press

Source : Toronto Star More