An estimated 1,000 people gathered outside a Canadian church Sunday to protest the government's closing of a congregation that has drawn worldwide attention.
Last week, police in Stony Plain, Alberta, erected fencing around GraceLife Church, which had been gathering for worship in violation of provincial health restrictions. The police's controversial action took place nearly two months after its pastor, James Coates, was arrested for organizing and hosting worship services. His trial is scheduled to begin May 3.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) said it "physically closed" the building and will be prohibiting access until the church "can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health's restrictions," according to CTV news.
On Sunday, some 1,000 people gathered outside the church, praying for the government and the church. Although some of the protesters helped tear down the fencing, another group of protesters helped the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) put it back up, chanting, "leave the fence alone" and saying, "Jesus would not take down the fence," CTV reported.
The church released a joint statement with Coates and The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms about the protest, saying, "it is time to end these unscientific, unjustified and arbitrary lockdown measures." The Justice Centre is representing the church.
"GraceLife Church appreciates the public outpouring of support to fully open churches in Alberta. GraceLife Church congregants were not at the protest that occurred on Sunday, April 11, 2021, near the Church's facility. GraceLife Church recognizes the place for peaceful protest within the context of a democracy," the statement read.
The church, the statement continued, "has no control of our Church or grounds at this time."
"The Church grounds are fully under the responsibility and control of the RCMP and Alberta Health Services," the statement read. "The closing of the GraceLife facility has understandably resulted in significant public outrage and caused even larger crowds to gather in one place. Albertans have a constitutional right to assemble, associate, and worship. By taking the measures the government has, while the matter is still pending before the Courts, the Alberta Government has created an even more divisive situation."
In an interview with CTV, Albert Premier Jason Kenney urged protesters to stay safe from the virus and follow health guidance.
"We have about 10,000 places of worship in Alberta that have worked very hard to comply with the guidelines, to keep their congregants and the community safe," Kenney said. "We have apparently one, maybe a couple of others, that have refused to do that. So I would say thank you to the 10,000 faith communities that have carefully followed the guidelines as best they can to respect the sanctity of human life and to protect the vulnerable."
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/EJ Rodriquez
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.