Citing COVID-19, Canada cracks down on churches
One pastor is jailed, while others face steep fines and possible prison time
Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Alberta, Canada, turned himself over to Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Tuesday. He and his congregation had consciously disregarded Alberta Health Services orders to keep in-person church services at 15 percent capacity as a coronavirus prevention measure. Now he is in jail, where he will remain until trial unless he agrees to comply with Alberta’s COVID-19 restrictions. That’s something the pastor says he cannot do in good conscience.
Though Coates is the first clergy member imprisoned in Canada for violating COVID-19 health orders, pastors across the country have faced fines and threats of detainment in recent months for trying to gather with their congregations for worship. The Reopen Ontario Act, updated on October 1, 2020, gives the premier of Ontario authority to extend virus lockdowns and provides procedures on how violators can be fined or put in custody.
On Dec. 23 in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, police charged the Rev. Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church under the Reopening Ontario Act for holding in-person services of more than 10 people. The charge could mean jail time and a $100,000 fine, according to a statement from Harvest’s elders. On Christmas Eve, Windsor police threatened to block all vehicle access to the church, so Rock negotiated with them to allow the church to conduct drive-in services. The church resumed in-person gatherings at 30 percent capacity on Feb. 17 in accordance with Windsor’s latest guidelines. Rock’s preliminary court hearing for the Dec. 23 charge is scheduled for March 29.
Police in Waterloo, Ontario, targeted the elders of one church for not following pandemic health orders. On Dec. 3, Pastor Jacob Reaume of Trinity Bible Chapel wrote an open letter to Canadian elected officials outlining Biblical and constitutional reasons why he thought churches should physically gather, virus or not. On Dec. 30, police arrived at each of the six homes of the Trinity elders and issued them summonses to appear in court for hosting services that violated the Reopening Ontario Act. Trinity’s elders responded on Dec. 31: “For years we have taught our children to respect police, and now our children and grandchildren are witness to their fathers and grandfathers receiving charges from police for worshipping Christ with our church.”
In 2021, Trinity has held a mix of indoor and outdoor in-person services every Sunday with the exception of Jan. 10 and 17, when they held drive-in worship. The elders have pleaded guilty to the violations in court but have not received any sentences to date. Trinity Bible Chapel and its elders face a combined 22 reopening act violations that could result in $22.2 million in fines. Reaume personally could receive a $500,000 fine and five years in prison. Trinity plans filing a constitutional challenge this week.
On Jan. 3, Tillsonburg, Ontario, police gave Pastor Stephen Richardson of Faith Presbyterian Church an $850 ticket for hosting in-person services after neighbors tipped off police. Faith Presbyterian started meeting in person secretly in different locations every week. Members were asked to leave their phones at home so their locations could not be tracked. They also arranged schedules for people to arrive and leave services to avoid arousing neighbors’ suspicion. In February, after hearing what Pastor Reaume was suffering, Faith Presbyterian decided to be public with its decision to meet in person. On Feb. 7, Ontario Provincial Police issued Richardson a court summons for violating the reopening act. He says he cannot obey, “those laws which would prevent me from gathering with other believers for fellowship, prayer, preaching, sacraments and praise,” even if lockdowns were applied evenly. His day in court is April 1.
Other Canadian pastors and congregations are facing similar fines and summonses, according to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
Why are pastors choosing threats of fines and jail over submitting to provincial guidelines?
“Hebrews 10:25 commands us to gather,” Rock said. “We are commanded to celebrate sacraments, exercise church discipline, lay hands on the sick, and lay hands on elders to ordain them. Lockdowns make everything the church is commanded to do very, very difficult. And we don’t think the grand, genius solution of throwing people on Zoom church is the right one.”
Rock also said Ontario is unfairly applying restrictions to churches but not other public places.
“For our drive-in services, they made us park 6 feet apart. You couldn’t roll down windows,” he said. “It’s quite silly. … The same people that sat 6 feet apart in their cars at church went to Walmart and Costco and parked right next to each other. We’d shop there after church sometimes to walk around and fellowship.”
Since his summons, Rock and others formed Liberty Coalition Canada to advocate for ending lockdowns and reopening churches. Thousands of pastors, politicians, and citizens have joined. When asked about the imprisonment of James Coates, Rock said, “I’m totally with the guy. I think what happened to him is disgusting. He was punished for trying to minister to people and following his conscience.”
Some Canadian pastors disagree with Rock and Coates’ approach. While sympathetic and prayerful about Coates’ situation, Pastor Mike Tourangeau of Binbrook Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario, said he thought churches had received preferential treatment at times during the pandemic.
“We were always allowed gatherings up to 10 people. Other businesses were not,” he said. Pastor Peter Mahaffey of Royal York Baptist Church in Toronto held seven in-person services a week, each with 10 or fewer congregants. That way, church members could meet in person without violating local health restrictions. This model worked well for some of Tourangeau’s friends, though Binbrook opted to move church online until last week’s updated local virus guidelines.
Pastor Richardson, himself facing a potential $100,000 fine and a year in jail, said the government is persecuting churches.
“James Coates proves these threats are not hypothetical,” he said. “We are not playing games anymore. Persecution is actually happening. … If they are going to go after James they have to go after me.”
Rather than send Rock, Reaume, and Richardson directly to jail, Ontario authorities plan to try them in court. Coates, however, is in Edmonton, Alberta, where officials have put him in jail until his trial. The Justice Centre is appealing Coates’s imprisonment.
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