Reading Time: 3 minutes Pastor James Coates
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the battle against COVID, the province of Alberta is holding steady with nearly 5,000 active cases. More than 300 people are hospitalized with the illness, 53 of those in intensive care units. Nine more people have died, including four from the Calgary area and three from the Edmonton region.

All that is in spite of the intransigence of churches that refuse to comply with public health orders, citing religious freedom as a justification for spreading disease.

It’s a flimsy excuse, of course, and the proof is in the pudding: Most churches have pivoted to online services or reduced-capacity devotionals to protect parishioners and the community at large. It’s a distinct and vocal minority of congregations breaking the law, led and encouraged by their leaders. And the RCMP is finding that the same offenders crop up over and over.

One of these is Edmonton’s GraceLife Church, which hosted a crowded service on Sunday even though their last attempt saw Pastor James Coates arrested and charged with contravening public health requirements.

Pastor James Coates

Coates remained in police custody for over a week, which will almost certainly end up spun into a harrowing tale of Christian martyrdom… but the court was willing to release him on bail if he agreed to stop holding church services. Coates refused, citing “good conscience” and God’s will.

His lawyer, James Kitchen, told reporters that Coates was willing to go to prison to make his point:

His first obedience is to his Lord, is to his God. And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand,” James Kitchen said. “The government’s forcing him in to a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government.

Coates is perfectly free to make whatever sacrifices he pleases to his own deity, but he and his parishioners will have contact with random strangers in day-to-day living, to say nothing of their own loved ones and family members. It’s not fair to ask those people to court death for his God.

Then there’s Pastor Tim Stephens of Calgary’s Fairview Baptist Church, which last made news for unapologetically flouting COVID guidelines in January. Despite a $1,200 fine, Stephens has continued to actively encourage rule-breaking in his congregation.

On Sunday he released a lengthy screed he’s calling a press release to outline the reasons why any restrictions on churches — any restrictions at all — make practicing their religion impossible:

We understand the dangers of COVID-19 but we also understand the dangers of policies that seek to reduce the spread of the virus. All must admit that the lockdowns and restrictions have been damaging. Depression and other mental and behavioral issues due to isolation, increased drug use, increased suicide, pornography, economic devastation, small businesses lost, and many other hardships causes our hearts to break for the people suffering.

Drug use, suicide, economic devastation, pornography? One of these things is not like the others.

Stephens went on to argue that, since schools are operating at full capacity with relaxed rules, there’s no reason to keep restricting churches:

We have no objection with these accommodations since the standard rules would prevent the school from doing what is essential for a student’s education. Should not this be the policy for every school, business, and church? We are not against all rules and health measures. However, we cannot comply with rules that make what we essentially do as a church impossible. And to be clear, it is the Jesus Christ, not civil government, that defines what is essential for the gathered church.

Stephens is being disingenuous here: he has publicly spoken and acted in opposition to pretty much all the rules and health measures being introduced to curtail the spread of COVID — at least, insofar as they affect churches.

See, Alberta’s most recent public health order for places of worship does not require pastors like Coates and Stephens to close their doors. They require physical distancing, however, limiting attendance to 15% of the building’s fire-code capacity. They also require mask-wearing and discourage singing. Pastors have the option of pivoting to online services or organizing drive-in worship gatherings.

Both GraceLife and Fairview Baptist offer online sermons, but they continue to encourage in-person worship to make a point. Stephens’ press release even proclaims that it welcomes newcomers interested in “worshiping freely under Christ.” At GraceLife’s website, you can’t even access their content until you click past a long, preachy pop-up wall of COVID-denialist text.

Think about that for a second. They say they want so badly to be free to share the Gospel, yet they block direct access to their own website with anti-COVID propaganda.

It almost makes it seem as if what they’re really looking for is a fight that’ll let them cosplay persecution and has nothing to do with Jesus Christ at all.

(Screenshot via YouTube. Thanks to Richard for the link)