By COLLIN GALLANT on April 7, 2021.
City police say Alberta Health Services will decide whether fines or charges should be levelled against a Medicine Hat church that says it held a full service on Easter Sunday in disregard of pandemic restrictions.
Local officers were near the scene of the Heights Baptist Church over the weekend, observing but not interacting with worshipers as they entered and left services.
Medicine Hat police chief Mike Worden told the News on Tuesday the service was engaged by AHS to support the investigation last week when two churches in Medicine Hat advertised on social media they planned to hold full-capacity events.
“AHS is the lead agency and we won’t make a determination about whether charges will be appropriate,” said Worden.
The Grace Life Church near Spruce Grove has been the focus of controversy after its pastor refused to abide by bail conditions to comply with health orders and limit capacity at that church. He remained in custody for several weeks, but it now free and set to go to trial on a single charge in May. Several other pastors across the province have posted videos of interactions with police and posted them online.
At the same time, frustration has grown among many Albertans about a seeming unwillingness by authorities to clamp down on those who break and even flout pandemic restrictions.
Worden said police presence can diffuse situations, and he hopes for respectful debate and for people act with public safety in mind.
“It’s a very divisive issue; there’s lots of emotion around it,” he said. “Medicine Hatters in general are very supportive (of the measures) and follow the rules on most occasions.
“We’ve taken an educational approach and everyone is always very understanding and compliant after those conversations.”
Worden also said the service attended a second location Sunday, which had been a listed address for the Grade Life Reformed Church in Medicine Hat, but found the building in Crescent Heights vacant. That group was also listed on internet sites as one that would break rules restricting gatherings at religious facilities to 15 per cent of fire code.
The News spoke with three local pastors of other churches ahead of Good Friday services, and each said they planned to add service times and continue to offer online broadcasts to reach parishioners.
Heights Baptist officials have made only brief comment to the media about the Easter service, stating they are practising their faith.
The church is one of several plaintiffs in a case that asks the Court of Queens bench to strike down public health orders against gathering and mask wearing as contrary to Charter-protected rights of assembly and religious worship.
Medicine Hat police have only publicly reported one set of charges laid in relation to pandemic restrictions in 13 months.
In that specific case a Medicine Hat resident allegedly engaged an out-of-town escort for services at his home and then isolation protocols were broken at some point later.