By COLLIN GALLANT on April 6, 2021.
Police in Medicine Hat are expected to make a statement Tuesday regarding a local church potentially breaking capacity limits during Easter services, while Alberta Health Services says it is “working closely ” with local authorities about a potential breech of restrictions meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Senior officials with Heights Baptist Church announced last week they intended to hold a full-capacity service despite Alberta Health orders to limit gatherings in all buildings to 15 per cent of fire code rating.
The facility, located at 1250 Division Ave. S., appeared to host a large number of worshipers for Sunday morning services as Medicine Hat police maintained a distance of about a block away.
Church officials did not respond to an interview request on Monday, but provided a brief written statement to the News.
“On Easter Sunday, the congregation of Heights Baptist Church held a worship service where we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians have done for over two thousand years,” stated Pastor Rev. Patrick Schoenberger in an email.
In late 2020, the church was one of two religious groups and several individual plaintiffs who asked courts for an injunction against public health measures to curb spiking case numbers before Christmas. An affidavit from Schoenberger stated that gathering in person was central to the religious beliefs of his congregation and that wearing a mask interfered with singing and obscured emotional and spiritual interaction with each other and with God.
The plaintiffs and lawyers from the Justice Centre of Constitutional Freedom argued restrictions were unconstitutional and should be stayed until the case was fully heard.
That application was dismissed but the case on the constitutionality will proceed this year at an undetermined date.
Heights Baptist Church was one of two churches in Medicine Hat that advertised on social media they would host entire congregations on Sunday.
Grace Family Reform Baptist Church, which posts no active address on its website, was also reportedly taking part, but it is not known if or where such a service was held.
Alberta Health Services provided a statement to the News that they are aware of the “potential issues” and reiterated the need for social distancing and operating within current guidelines.
“AHS is working closely with the Medicine Hat Police Service regarding what appeared to be breaches of the current Chief Medical Officer of Health’s (CMOH) restrictions related to capacity, physical distancing, and masking over the weekend at the Heights Baptist Church,” it read.
“We expect that all places of worship across Alberta follow the CMOH restrictions and we thank everyone who continues to do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this holiday weekend and throughout the pandemic.
“Our inspectors have an important job to do and we ask that business owners and organizations treat them with respect. We stand by all of our public health inspectors, who are doing an incredible job amid trying and challenging circumstances.”
Two members of the Heights Baptist congregation approached aÂ NewsÂ reporter on the site, identifying themselves only by first names. They said the group was practising its faith, and claimed case numbers in U.S. states where measures had lifted proved they were acting safely.
Controversy has swirled in Alberta around the Grace Life Church in Parkland County, near Edmonton, after several months of high-level activity at services there, and an apparent lack of action from health officials.
Late last week, the two Medicine Hat area churches appeared on a list of churches planning to defy health orders, posted on the Liberty Coalition Canada website. That website states it is a partner of the “End the Lockdowns Caucus.”
That group, made up of legislators at various levels of government across Canada, came under fire this weekend when one of its founders, Ontario provincial parliament member Randy Hillier, posted a picture of Adolph Hitler. He likened warnings of a “third wave” of the pandemic from health officials as the institution of a Third Reich.
That led Cypress Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes to announce he was disaffiliating from the group in a letter co-signed by Airdrie MLA Angela Pitts.
Barnes made the announcement on social media.
“I ended my association with ‘End the Lockdowns Caucus,’ and strongly condemn the disturbing remarks made by Mr. Hillier,” he wrote. “(They) trivialize the history of Nazi Germany and the millions of lives lost, and have no place in our public discourse.”