Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta tried to be faithful to his God and the needs of his flock, as well as submit to the secular governing authorities when it came to their COVID-19 regulations. But there came a time when he had to choose God over government, and it cost him – personally.
Stephens did what he was supposed to and posted the government’s COVID regulations on social distancing at his church, but congregants in the small facility sat too close together, from the government’s point of view, and not all of them wore masks. The police who came to “observe” the church’s worship services on at least two occasions in 2021 decided the congregation wasn’t obeying the government’s directives.
What happened next was a travesty.
In a pattern of harassment, the Alberta public health authorities issued Stephens six tickets with fines attached for his church’s violations of various COVID social distancing requirements. Then the government closed his church. When the congregation decided to meet for worship outside at a new location, the police dispatched a helicopter to locate where he and his congregation were meeting.
They arrested Stephens twice – at home, in front of his wife and young children. The authorities were out to make a point.
Stephens spent a total of 21 days in jail resulting from those arrests. He is one of four Canadian pastors who were arrested in Canada for holding church services in violation of public health orders related to COVID-19.
The good news, however, is that after four of the tickets were dismissed, and the public health orders were long since rescinded, Stephens has been found “not guilty” by an Alberta provincial court on the remaining two tickets – the ones alleging that many in his congregation were not social distancing to the cops’ liking.
Provincial court Judge Allan Fradsham ruled on November 1 that the government had failed to prove its case against Stephens. The government argued that Stephens, who was always at the front of the congregation and properly distanced from everyone else, was personally responsible for the lack of compliance by his congregation. The judge rejected that notion.
“With respect,” Fradsham wrote in his ruling, “that question is not legally relevant to the issues before me. … I see nothing in the provisions of that particular order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health which imposed any legal obligation on Pastor Stephens to ensure, compel, or encourage compliance, by those attending the religious services he was conducting, with paragraph 2(1) of CMOH Order 26-2020.”
Stephens was jubilant in victory. He tweeted, “This is vindication, not only for me, but vindication that the government grossly abused their power. In all of this, I rejoice since the gospel of Jesus Christ went forth in power, and Christ built his church. All glory to God!”
Pastor Stephens was represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which issued a press release announcing the court’s ruling.
“We are pleased that the Court has acquitted Pastor Stephens on the charges of not complying with a public health order,” the Justice Centre wrote. “Pastor Stephens was illegally arrested and imprisoned for having allegedly violated the Public Health Orders, which have since been shown to be ineffective and harmful. This decision sets the record straight about the justifiability of his actions and about the importance of respecting Charter rights and freedoms.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought into sharp focus – in Canada and the U.S. – the dangers inherent in allowing the government to restrict fundamental freedoms, even during a public health emergency. It took courageous pastors on both sides of the border to stand up for the scriptural command in Hebrews 10:25 (ESV): “…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Kudos to Pastor Stephens for making his courageous stand in defense of his religious freedom. If and when the time comes, may God grant us similar resolve and the ability to endure government persecution for our faith.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16 (ESV).