Canadian church shut down, fenced off for not complying with COVID-19 lockdown orders

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Police in Canada have placed metal fencing around a church that’s led by a pastor who was jailed for holding worship services that violated provincial lockdown rules in order to physically shut it down until it “can demonstrate the ability to comply” with the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Police on Friday put up additional fencing around GraceLife Church in Edmond, days after Alberta Health Services closed the building by fencing it off, ahead of Sunday worship, Edmonton Journal reported.

Officials have accused GraceLife of violating public health guidelines on multiple occasions by holding in-person worship services where attendees did not social distance or wear face masks. Last month, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged the church as an entity for holding worship services in February that exceeded the limit of 15% capacity.

On Wednesday, around a dozen RCMP vehicles arrived to place fencing adorned with black cloth around the perimeter of the building as well as the parking lot, the Journal said.

Additional fencing was put up on Friday to “ensure the entire premises subject to the executive officer order’s closure is secure and access to the public is closed off,” AHS spokesman James Wood was quoted as saying.

Church members and supporters were gathering near the building, and RCMP spokesman Fraser Logan was quoted as saying that several noise complaints had been received on Thursday after a man used a megaphone throughout the afternoon.

“With COVID-19 cases increasing and the more easily-transmitted and potentially more severe variants becoming dominant, there is urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans,” AHS said in a statement, according to The Epoch Times.

In February, GraceLife Church Pastor James Coates turned himself in to authorities for violating ongoing lockdown restrictions that, among other things, limited in-person worship gatherings to no more than 15% capacity. He was released in March, with his next court date being May 3.

Coates is accused of violating the Alberta Public Health Act, which limits many in-person gatherings in response to COVID-19.

As part of the effort to help Coates and GraceLife, a GoFundMe page was created by John Klassen to pay for any legal fees the pastor and the church accrue.

“Coates has been a rare and refreshing voice of courage in these [unprecedented] times. He has stood on the word of God faithfully, courageously and uncompromisingly as a man of God when all around him men falter and fail,” read the fundraising page, in part.

“I’m raising money to benefit Pastor James and GraceLife Church of Edmonton, to do good as Galatians 6:10 exhorts us to, and any donation will help make an impact. Thanks in advance for your contribution to this cause.”

Police Block and Barricade Canadian Church Over COVID-19 Violatons

Health officials in Alberta, Canada, made the decision to “physically close” a local church building until its leaders agree to finally comply with coronavirus regulations.

Police vehicles blocked entrances to the parking lot of GraceLife Church in Edmonton Wednesday morning and temporary fencing was erected around the building. The congregation has met normally since summer 2020, despite requirements that church gatherings limit capacity, require masks, and practice social distancing.

Over the last nine months, the province’s health department fielded more than 100 complaints about GraceLife and conducted 18 inspections, resulting in multiple fines and orders to comply. Its pastor was arrested and spent a month in jail refusing the conditions of bail, that he agree to follow health regulations.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents GraceLife and its pastor James Coates, said the move to barricade private church property prevents citizens from “exercising their Charter freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and worship.”

As officials surrounded the church, dozens of GraceLife members gathered outside and sang hymns, according to a report by the Globe and Mail.

“Please pray for wisdom as our elders navigate this new development!” one member tweeted, posting a screenshot of the view of the new fencing from the church’s security camera.

Premier Jason Kenney told Albertans a week ago that the province is in its third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. He suggested that more stringent enforcement by police may be necessary at this point, saying authorities have “been very patient during a difficult time trying to get compliance through education, through voluntary compliance, and using sanctions as a last resort.”

The GraceLife case has drawn the attention of those in both Canada and the US who fear government overreach during pandemic. Alberta legislator Dan Williams, a conservative politician and a Christian, spoke up to defend worship as a fundamental freedom. He said while he respects the 15 percent capacity limit for gatherings, “it is a different line to cross to barricade a church, a place of God.”

GraceLife leaders consider the COVID-19 risks overblown and claim that their ability to continue gathering without spreading the virus is proof.

“We believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties,” the church wrote. “We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end—the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections.”

Pastor Coates is due in court next month for violating gathering limits at GraceLife.

9 Things You Should Know About International Human Rights

Earlier this week, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union announced sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. As Axios notes, “It’s a coordinated Western effort to hold Beijing accountable for its sweeping campaign of arbitrary detention, forced labor, and forced sterilization against ethnic minorities in the far west region of Xinjiang, which the U.S. State Department and several legislative bodies have recognized as genocide.”

Here are nine things you should know about how human rights developed into an issue of international concern.

1. Not all rights of humans are categorized as “human rights.”

“Human rights” refers to a special and narrow category of rights held by human beings. As William A. Edmundson explains in his book, An Introduction to Rights, “Perhaps the best way of understanding the emphasis given to being human in the phrase ‘human rights’ is this: Human rights recognize extraordinarily special, basic interests, and this sets them apart from rights, even moral rights generally” (emphasis original).

2. International human rights have their roots in modern Christianity.

Some scholars, such as Harvard professor Samuel Moyn, argue that the modern human rights movement was “prefigured and inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person that first arose in Christian churches and religious thought in the years just prior to the outbreak of the war.”

As Moyn observes, “It turns out to be quite difficult to find non-Christians who enthused about human rights, and more especially their basis in human dignity, in the age [before the 1940s].

“The uncomfortable reality [for secularists] is that Christianity and human rights are far more closely related than their respective critics imagine,” Nick Spencer points out, adding:

[T]he fact remains that Christianity and human rights are cousins of some description. Superficially very different—one an ancient religion, the other a well worked through legal systemisation—beneath the surface, they not only share intellectual ancestors but also a particular vision of human nature and the human good, and a particular attitude to weakness and to power.

3. Recognition and enforcement of international human rights began in the 20th century.

While there were important events in human rights history before the 20th century, the foundation of contemporary human rights law was primarily developed during the 30-year period between World War I in 1918 and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The most successful effort of advancing human rights at the international level, says Seth Mohney, was the development of the minority treaty system. The Allied Powers required treaties and declarations in several European countries to contain minority clauses of various forms. These minority treaties guaranteed such protections as full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of the country or region concerned, without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion.

“These treaties signaled the first multilateral efforts to protect the rights of specific groups of people at the international level,” Andrew Clapham writes in Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction.

4. Universal recognition of human rights ramped up during World War II.

Before the 1940s, few documents were recognized internationally as applying to all people at all times in all nations. During World War II, the push for universal recognition of inalienable human rights was aided by the Atlantic Charter and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech before the United States Congress in 1941. These ideals were also transmitted in a pamphlet, “The United Nations Fight for the Four Freedoms.”

Nazi atrocities highlighted a need for human rights to be established as an international legal status. More than 1,300 American nongovernmental organizations joined in placing newspaper ads calling for human rights to be an integral part of any future international organization and called for the United Nations Charter to include a clear and substantive commitment to human rights.

5. The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights became the foundational document.

On April 25, 1945, representatives from 46 nations gathered in San Francisco to form the United Nations. They responded to the demand by mentioning human rights five times in the U.N. Charter. The charter also established a commission “for the promotion of human rights.” This newly created Commission on Human Rights spent three years drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

After the committee completed its work, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was submitted to the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which held 81 meetings and considered 168 formal resolution on the declaration. Forty-eight nations voted for the Declaration, eight countries abstained (the Soviet bloc countries, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia), and two countries were absent.

6. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists 55 human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says people have at least 55 human rights, including:

  • To life.
  • To liberty.
  • To security of person.
  • To be free from slavery.
  • To be free from involuntary servitude.
  • To be free from torture.
  • To be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • To be free from arbitrary interference with one’s privacy, family, home, or correspondence.
  • To be free from attacks upon one’s honor and reputation.
  • To the protection of the law against such interference or attacks upon one’s privacy, honor, or reputation.
  • To marry.
  • To found a family.
  • To free and full consent in choosing one’s spouse.
  • To freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
  • To change one’s religion or belief.
  • To manifest, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

7. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspired the legal system of human rights, but is not legally binding.

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding, the document has inspired more than 80 treaties and declarations, numerous regional conventions, domestic bills, and constitutional provisions, which together constitute a comprehensive legally binding system for the promotion and protection of human rights.

8. The United States only began making human rights a full foreign-policy priority in the mid-1970s.

In 1974, a congressional subcommittee issued a report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for U.S. Leadership.” The report criticized the existing approach in American foreign policy and made the case for elevating human rights:

The human rights policy is not accorded the high priority it deserves in our country’s foreign policy. Too often it becomes invisible on the vast foreign policy horizon of political, economic and military affairs. . . . We have disregarded human rights for the sake of our assumed interests . . . Human rights should not be the only or even always the major factor in foreign policy decision-making. But a higher priority is urgently needed, if future American leadership in the world is to mean what it has traditionally meant—encouragement to men and women everywhere who cherish individual freedom.

Over the next few years Congress enacted a series of bills that resulted in Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act. That Act established that it would be “a principal goal of the foreign policy of the United States to promote the increased observance of internationally recognized human rights by all countries.” The effect of this law is that human rights considerations must be included as part of foreign policy decision-making.

9. Why the U.S. places a priority on religious liberty as a human right.

In 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, an independent, nonpartisan advisory body. Its purpose was “not to discover new principles, but to furnish advice to the Secretary for the promotion of individual liberty, human equality, and democracy through U.S. foreign policy.” In its report, the commission explains why the United States should give priority to certain human rights, and why religious liberty should be among them:

Governments that respect unalienable rights [i.e., human rights] preserve the ability of those who live under them to determine and pursue, consistent with the like right of others, what is fitting, proper, and good. Some mistakenly suppose that so generous a conception of liberty must rest on skepticism about salvation and justice. Why give people freedom to choose if God’s will and the imperatives of justice are knowable? In fact, a certain skepticism is involved, but it is directed not at faith and justice but at the capacity of government officials to rule authoritatively on the deepest and greatest questions. The Madisonian view of religious liberty—like the view to which Jefferson gave expression in his Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom—proceeds from a theistic premise about the sources of human dignity even as it denies the state the power to dictate final answers about ultimate matters.

Jailed Canadian pastor moved to general population after spending nearly 2 weeks alone, wife says

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Canadian Pastor James Coates was recently moved to a general population cell after spending most of two weeks alone following his mid-February incarceration for refusing to comply with COVID-19 church restrictions.

Coates was quarantined for two weeks upon being arrested with only two 15-minute blocks per day outside of his jail cell, his wife told Christian news outlet FaithWire in a recent statement.  

He initially shared a cell with another inmate but was removed due to the high-profile nature of his case, Erin Coates stated in an email.

Erin Coates said she is unable to visit him due to COVID-19 restrictions but has been able to speak with him during video calls.

Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, was arrested for holding church services for three consecutive weeks after his church was ordered to close at the end of January for violating gathering and physical distancing restrictions.

Coates turned himself into the police on Feb. 16 and faces two counts of violating the Public Health Act. He was also charged for failing to comply with his bail conditions requiring him to not conduct or participate in services that are not compliant with government guidelines after being released from custody the first time.

He was detained at the Edmonton Remand Centre. 

In a court document, Erin Coates said her husband could not agree to the provisions of the Public Health Act in good conscience. 

According to a statement by Parkland County Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the escalated levels of law enforcement with Coates were consistent and in response to the effects his actions could have on the health and safety of citizens.

Coates and GraceLife Church’s attorneys argued that the bail conditions and health orders “violate his Charter freedoms of conscience, religion, expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

The Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Peter Michalyshyn ruled on March 5 that Coates must remain behind bars until his trial scheduled for May 3 to May 5.

GraceLife Church, which has been holding services in Coates’ absence, was faced with more charges on March 4 for violating restrictions and exceeding 15% of the church’s operational capacity, or about 90 people, for the last two Sundays of February. 

The church’s legal counsel was summoned to attend Stony Plain Provincial Court on May 5, according to a police report.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents Coates, filed an appeal to release Coates before his trial. His wife also issued a sworn affidavit detailing the implications of her husband’s imprisonment on herself, their two sons, the church and the community.  

“A trial set eight weeks down the road is too long for an innocent Pastor to be in jail,”  John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre, said in a statement. 

“Pastor Coates is a peaceful Christian minister. The Justice of the Peace should not have required him to violate his conscience and effectively stop pastoring his church as a condition to be released. This is a miscarriage of justice.”

Coates’ attorney James Kitchen, who works with the Justice Centre, said that his client’s “first obedience is to his Lord, is to his God.”

“And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand,” Kitchen stated. “The government’s forcing him into a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government.”

The church released a statement in February addressing the ramifications of COVID-19 and the destructiveness of shutting down churches indefinitely. The church said it originally shifted to online services when COVID-19 first appeared and returned to in-person gatherings on June 21, 2020.

“We believe [people] should responsibly return to their lives,” the church’s statement reads. “Churches should open, businesses should open, families and friends should come together around meals, and people should begin to exercise their civil liberties again. Otherwise we may not get them back. In fact, some say we are on the cusp of reaching the point of no return. Protect the vulnerable, exercise reasonable precautions, but begin to live your lives again.”