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Mounties say church ignored COVID-19 rules again following charges against pastor

EDMONTON — RCMP say a church whose pastor was charged last week with violating Alberta's health rules was not complying with COVID-19 restrictions during Sunday morning's service.

Police say in a news release that they, along with Alberta Health Services, attended GraceLife Church near Edmonton to ensure  attendance was limited to 15 per cent of capacity and that people there were practising physical distancing.

They say officers at the scene "determined that the church did not comply with the restrictions," and as a result police are "furthering their investigation into the actions of GraceLife Church and the church pastor, James Coates." 

The release says another, detailed media release regarding the outcome of the investigation should come mid-week.

No one from the church could be reached for comment, but last week it posted a 1,600-word statement on its website explaining that it does not believe the spread of the virus is a critical public health threat.

The statement also argued the government is using the pandemic to undermine civil rights and freedoms.

Coates was charged last week with violating one count of the Public Health Act and is to appear in Stony Plain provincial court on March 31.

“To be very clear, the RCMP’s objective is not to interrupt church services, prohibit services, nor deny peoples’ right to practice their religion -- merely to ensure that public health restrictions are adhered to while doing so,” RCMP Insp. Mike Lokken said in the release on Sunday.

Const. Kathleen Fossen, an RCMP spokeswoman, said police did not make any arrests or issue any tickets on Sunday, and that the investigation is ongoing.

The church has been clashing with health authorities for two months over COVID-19 rules and had previously ignored an order to close down.

In a recorded sermon from Coates titled "Directing Government to its Duty" that was posted on the church's website on Sunday, the pastor said that whether or not what the church is facing constitutes persecution is irrelevant.

"I'm doing what I'm doing in obedience to Christ. I'm quite content to let the Lord Jesus Christ decide whether or not this is persecution," he said.

Alberta's chief medical health officer reported five new deaths of people with COVID-19 on Sunday and 284 additional cases.

Last week, Alberta began a four-stage plan to reduce economic restrictions after a nearly two-month shutdown. They allowed in-person dining to resume, along with some sports and fitness activities, particularly for youth.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021.

The Canadian Press