GraceLife Church had COVID-19 cases, lawyer says lax enforcement emboldens others

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Members of GraceLife Church tested positive for COVID-19 last summer, Postmedia has learned, and a constitutional lawyer fears a continued lack of enforcement will embolden other congregations to flout restrictions.

The Parkland County church was ordered closed in January for repeatedly breaking public health restrictions and its pastor was jailed for 35 days. Still, it continues to hold packed services above 15 per cent capacity, with no enforcement of masks and physical distancing, even as the more deadly and contagious COVID-19 variant cases rise in Alberta.

Last July, church leadership told congregants it was working with Alberta Health Services contact tracers, and temporarily moving services online, after some members tested positive for COVID-19. It’s not clear how many people were affected at the time, or if there are currently any COVID-19 cases linked to GraceLife Church, but Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan said Monday no outbreaks had been reported to health officials to date.

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In a livestream of the church’s July 12 service, a speaker named Mark Blackburn said he was in touch with “many” members affected by COVID-19.

“I’ve personally been in contact with many of you, and it’s not the best circumstances, but it really has been a privilege to serve you guys through this week and connect with you and just to see how everybody is doing,” he said.

Postmedia has requested information from AHS about the number of COVID-19 cases past and present, as well as whether the church is complying with contact tracing.

Pastor James Coates held his first service since being released from jail Sunday. In July, he wrote a letter to the congregation while on vacation, saying the church would closely monitor the COVID-19 situation and that it was “extremely important to us, especially in terms of how it impacts each of you.”

“He is going to use our present circumstances for His glory and our good. Our responsibility is to be faithful while placing our full trust in Him,” he said, referring to God.

Enforcement approach not working: professor

But Eric Adams, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Alberta, said while enforcement around religious gatherings is delicate, taking an educational approach is not working.

He said for the rule of law to work in Canada, there has to be enforcement.

“Once it becomes clear that the law is not being enforced in a particular circumstance, then effectively that law really ceases to exist,” he said.

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Although Alberta’s current restrictions interfere with religious activities, he doubts they would be found unconstitutional.

If GraceLife is allowed to stay open week after week and there is no intention or ability to enforce AHS health rules, it could embolden other religious groups to do the same, he said.

He also expects others who have been compliant, including faith groups, will be frustrated.

“Just think for a moment of the funerals for loved ones that hadn’t been held, the weddings that were abandoned, the family gatherings that haven’t taken place, the countless community moments that have been delayed from among so many of us,” he said.

“There’s just simply going to be a level of frustration and I think tragedy that self-sacrifice, and community sacrifice, actually, doesn’t mean very much if the law is only selectively applied.”

Hinshaw: most following rules

During an update on vaccines in the province, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Monday the vast majority of Albertans, including faith leaders, know how important it is to protect their communities from COVID-19 and noted the church has seen legal consequences.

“(But) the consequences are also the potential that these events become super spreading events for variants or previously dominant strains of COVID-19 that can then ripple outwards into the community and cause severe illness and potentially even death,” she said.

She added that governments set policies and “law enforcement actions are really dealt with by the agencies that have the ability to do so.” However, the RCMP has said multiple times AHS is responsible for enforcement of health orders but Mounties will assist when required.

In a Sunday tweet, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said: “Enough is enough. GraceLife must be shut down.”

She said many other churches had made sacrifices and followed health orders.

“The people attending this church are not above anyone else. Their refusal to follow the rules puts others at risk,” Notley tweeted.

lboothby@postmedia.com

@laurby

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