By Kaitlyn Shepherd
On Tuesday, James Coates, pastor of GraceLife Church in Alberta, Canada, was arrested and placed in police custody for violating Canada's public health orders. Police officers and representatives from the Alberta Health Service (the "AHS") arrived at the church on Sunday. After monitoring the service, they determined that the church had violated public health orders, which limited attendance to 15 percent of building capacity and required attendees to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. Pastor Coates voluntarily turned himself in to police on Tuesday after he was told that police planned to arrest him.
This is not the first time that the church has been monitored by local health officials. Beginning in November 2020, officials from the AHS monitored the church's worship services every week, counted the number of congregants in the sanctuary, and recorded whether they were wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is representing the church and Pastor Coates, reports that "[t]his has occurred almost every Sunday for three months, with no regard to how disturbing the presence of an AHS inspector and law enforcement is to congregants of [GraceLife]." In December 2020, Pastor Coates was fined $1,200 after inspectors determined the church was violating public health orders. On January 29, 2021, the AHS issued an order requiring the church to remain closed until it complied with public health orders. On February 7, 2021, two police officers told Pastor Coates that he was under arrest and must stop violating the closure order. After Pastor Coates explained that doing so would violate his conscience and his duties as a pastor, the officers left without arresting him.
Unfortunately, similar incidents have occurred in the United States as well. Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least 37 churches or pastors have been fined, ticketed, cited, or threatened with such consequences, and at least 16 churches have witnessed police officers monitor or shut down worship services. A disproportionate number of these incidents have occurred in California, which until recently had imposed a total ban on indoor worship services. Because not every incident may be reported or publicized, the total number of incidents is likely higher.
Experiences like those of GraceLife Church highlight the importance of our First Amendment freedoms. As Justice Neil Gorsuch has observed, "Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis." Even during a pandemic, the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to freely exercise their religion according to the dictates of conscience. Churches must be treated no worse than secular entities and their religious freedom must be protected.