Canadian authorities needlessly escalate conflict over COVID-19 and religion

April 12, 2021

By now the situation involving Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church, which is just outside the city of Edmonton, has gained the attention of many evangelicals in both Canada and the United States. Back in February, Coates turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after the church violated public health restrictions related to COVID-19. Authorities in Canada then took the extraordinary step of holding Coates in jail for 35 days for an infraction “that is not punishable by jail time.”

At the time, the ERLC called the actions inflammatory and inexcusable and called for Coates’ immediate release. And though Coates has now been released, the situation has only gotten worse.

Needless escalation

On March 22, Coates was released from jail (as the ERLC also covered here). The criminal charges against him were dropped. And Coates returned home to his family and resumed worship activities with his church. It is worth noting that Coates’ objections to the health orders were never arbitrary. Coates and GraceLife hold “the religious conviction that the whole congregation must meet together during one service . . . [and] could not in good conscience follow the Emergency Health Orders authorized by the Alberta Health Act, which restricted building occupancy to 15% of a building’s fire-code capacity.”

With the terms of his release, Coates had another court date set for May related to a health order violation. But before that trial could take place, and mere weeks after Coates was released from jail, officials in Canada further escalated tensions in the matter.

As Christianity Today reports, on Wednesday of last week “Health officials in Alberta, Canada, made the decision to ‘physically close’ [GraceLife Church] until its leaders agree to finally comply with coronavirus regulations.” To exclude worshippers from the building, authorities erected temporary fencing around the property and used police vehicles to block access to the parking lot. 

These actions were particularly egregious and incendiary. Religious freedom is a fundamental right in Canada just as it is here in the United States. As John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said in response to these efforts to deny access to the church’s property, “Freedom of conscience and religion is the first fundamental freedom listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is listed first because it is one of the key bedrock principles on which Canada is built.” Carpay went on to say, “The government has so far refused to justify the limits on worship and gathering. Health orders are inconsistent, differing from province to province, and arbitrarily created by one public health official who is under no obligation legally to advise the legislatures of the science and rationale which supposedly are the basis of the orders.”

Protestors respond

In response to these aggressive and provocative actions, hundreds of protestors showed up outside of GraceLife’s facility on Sunday. The crowd assembled outside of the erected barricade to demonstrate against the state’s authoritarian efforts to prevent a Christian congregation from gathering for worship. According to multiple reports, a significant number of police officers—possibly hundreds—responded to the scene to counter the presence of the protestors. And it shouldn’t be missed that in making these inflammatory moves, local officials actually fostered an environment for people to get together en masse, creating a moment that actually could lead to further spread of the virus.

Conflict between the protestors and police was minimal. At one point, some protestors attempted to take down the fence, but that was quickly halted as police and other protestors worked together to restore the barricade. Most importantly, on Sunday night the church released a statement through the Justice Centre to clarify that its congregants were not present and did not participate in the protest that read in part: 

GraceLife Church appreciates the public outpouring of support to fully open churches in Alberta. Grace Life 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.

GraceLife Church 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 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.

Moving forward

The sight of temporary fencing, police vehicles, and countless law enforcement officers on the perimeter of a church property is jarring. It should be. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious international concern. But the freedom for churches to worship Christ is of perpetual, not to mention eternal, concern.

Throughout the pandemic, the ERLC has counseled churches and government officials to view one another as partners and allies in the fight against coronavirus. In many places, conflicts between houses of worship and public officials have been marginal or nonexistent. In fact, there are countless examples of churches and religious organizations stepping forward over the last year to meet critical needs in their communities, from providing childcare for essential workers, to providing food and housing assistance to people who lost their jobs, to manufacturing PPE that was in short supply, to serving as vaccination sites. And these are but a few examples of churches operating as partners, cooperating with governments to advance the common good in a time of immense difficulty.

But to respect the lines of authority and responsibility of both the church and the state, the ERLC has also encouraged government and public health officials to issue guidance rather than mandates related to COVID-19 for houses of worship. We believe pastors are best equipped to lead their own congregations and that government can best serve churches and secure its own interest of protecting public health by providing adequate resources and information for pastors to make these decisions. 

In the case of Coates and GraceLife, authorities in Alberta have repeatedly and needlessly escalated tensions through provocative action. Jailing Coates for more than a month was unconscionable. Barricading the church property further demonstrated the government’s animus and hostility. And the police presence from this past Sunday provoked and inflamed tensions, eroding public trust in this moment.

Government officials have a duty to promote public health and safety. But that duty is in service to a particular end, namely, protecting the ability of citizens to live their lives and enjoy their freedom, including the freedom to worship. The pandemic has called for certain necessary restrictive measures, but this sort of antagonistic behavior and ongoing harassment of a peaceful congregation is unwarranted and indefensible. Through these actions, the government has made adversaries of citizens for the simple offense of religious worship. There is no excuse for this kind of hostility or aggression.

Officials in Canada must demonstrate reason and good will. Deploying masses of law enforcement officers to ensure Christians are unable to gather for worship represents neither. Because the freedom to worship is fundamental, the lessons and mistakes here transcend the current moment and any concerns about the pandemic. Alberta’s government should remember Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and de-escalate this conflict.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24