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MEDICINE HAT, Alberta, March 16, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — Pastor Patrick Schoenberger of Heights Baptist Church in Medicine Hat, Alberta, says that ministering to his congregation amid COVID lockdowns is not only a necessity, but something desperately needed for the mental and spiritual health of his flock.

Schoenberger told LifeSiteNews that he doesn’t see his church as contributing to a public health crisis, but rather as helping those who need “God’s love and grace” in the tough times of COVID.

“The threat posed by COVID-19 is very small when compared to the damage being done by government lockdowns which cause and contribute to hopelessness, despair, loneliness, isolation, and depression. As well, government lockdowns cause and contribute to things like suicide, domestic violence, unemployment, poverty, and addiction.”

Heights Baptist, like other Alberta churches (Grace Life Church in Spruce Grove — whose Pastor James Coates is in jail — and Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary), has been open above the 15 percent capacity and does not make its churchgoers wear masks.

Schoenberger told LifeSiteNews he allows people to go free without masks, does not turn anyone away, and does not mandate “social distancing.”

“Will not enforce attendance limits. We even purchased masks for those who want them, but most do not wear masks. We also do not enforce social distancing,” said Schoenberger.

Recently, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced that retail businesses were allowed to increase their capacity limits to 25 percent, but churches were not included in this increase, remaining limited to a fraction of their fire code size.

As it stands, current Alberta Health COVID rules allow churches and other places of worship to operate at no more than 15 percent of the capacity allowed by the building fire code. Masks are mandatory, as are the sanitation of hands and keeping away from other people.

Schoenberger told LifeSitewNews that the Kenney government’s restrictions for a “15 percent capacity limit on churches not only is a violation of charter rights,” and “accomplishes nothing.”

“Neither our congregation nor Grace Life Church, for that matter, have had any COVID infections associated with our worship services,” Schoenberger told LifeSiteNews.

Pastor stresses that people’s “spiritual and emotional well-being” needs to be considered

Schoenberger said that the current government measures are “unbalanced,” and a more “holistic approach to health is needed.”

“We need to consider the spiritual and emotional well-being of communities, families, and individuals, and not just the spread of a virus that affects such a small percentage of the overall population,” he said. “As far as I know, not a single person has gotten sick or died from attending these worship services. What then is the justification for these limits, where is the scientific evidence? The accusation is made that church services are a threat to public safety, but can this claim be proven in court?”

Barry Schneider, a congregant of Heights Baptist relayed his COVID lockdown story to LifeSiteNews. He moved to Medicine Hat from Calgary in September to help with his wife’s depression and mental health.

Schneider said he was looking for a church that could “lift up” his and his wife’s spirits, noting that Heights Baptist “was the place” that offered him and his wife the ability to worship the lord “freely.”

He explained that the lockdown measures resulted in his wife having a “severe depression,” and that being able to attend church freely has helped him and his wife tremendously.

Schneider also noted that the “overreach of the government “is a “bit terrifying” when it comes to COVID restrictions, noting the lockdowns overreach on charter rights and freedoms.

Another congregant of Heights Baptist, Chandra Muszko, commented: “If you’re going to look at the health and wellness of everybody, that should be an all-encompassing thing. You need to look at statistics and see how many people are dying of suicides, how many people have seen an uprise in alcoholism, and drug abuse, and violence in the home,” said Muszko.

“These are not small potatoes, but for some reason, that aspect of our healthcare is overlooked because it doesn’t have a COVID title attached to it. Well, honestly it does, because with these lockdowns and measures in place, this is what it has caused. This is part of the fallout.”

Muszko said that Heights Baptist has offered her and many a place of peace and comfort to be with God in these troubled times.

“In times of desperation, we genuinely just need to reach out and feel the hope and the love of friends or our family. So that’s what this is, not only was I happy to have found this place and heard they’re standing up when nobody else will, and I’ve been so grateful to be here. Everyone here is so loving and wonderful,” Muszko told LifeSiteNews.

Gary Derheim, who attends Heights Baptist, said he “strongly disagrees” with the restrictions, and that he likes coming to the church because “here we give people the choice to wear a mask or not … I enjoy that we have the freedom to make that choice here. “

For us there is a line”

Since June 2020, Heights Baptist has been freely welcoming people. The church had, like virtually all churches in Canada, shut for a time during the spring of 2020, when the first COVID lockdowns began.

However, Schoenberger told LifeSiteNews that in June the church started to take a serious look at the COVID regulations and restrictions. Collectively, the congregation then took the time to accommodate the rules as best they could, by spacing out the chairs, stopping coffee time, potluck dinners, and increasing COVID signage. The chruch went even as far as to improve its air filtration system.

“We went over and above, we even, on our furnace units, placed HEPA filtration. We took a lot of measures to protect,” Schoenberger told LifeSiteNews. It was later on in the fall when the Alberta government once again began to restrict church size — which included a new mask mandate — that “a line was drawn.”

“For us, there is a line. We drew a line in the fall, the attendance limits, telling people they had to wear masks, for us, that was a line we could not cross,” he said. According to the pastor, COVID rules have been direct contributors to the “problem of loneliness of isolation, homelessness and depressing.”

“Drawing the line here, we believe to do these things is damaging and goes against the nature of the church,” said Schoenberger.

While the church has been visited multiple times by local health inspectors and law enforcement, no tickets have been issued, to date.

Schoenberger stressed that he has nothing but respect for those whose job it is to enforce the rules, and his qualm is not with them, but rather with the Alberta government.

“We have not been fined or ticketed. We have been reported, however: Too many cars in the parking lot. Three calls from health inspectors. I feel for them, they are trying to do their jobs. I have been honest with them in telling them.” Nevertheless, “we are not prepared” to comply with the rules,” he said.

Regarding jailed Pastor Coates, whom he does not know personally, Schoenberger told LifeSiteNews that “on principle, he is a prisoner of conscience.”

“The whole thing, there are business owners, restaurant owners who have been fined or ticketed because of COVID, but there is only one person in jail, and that is a pastor,” he said. “It is a shame and a stain on Alberta.”

Fighting back with legal action

Heights Baptist is currently being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) in a legal case against the Alberta government and its Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw.

The lawsuit states that the “Alberta government has violated the right to peaceful assembly, the right to travel, the right to conduct a business to earn a living, the right to visit family and friends, including having visitors in one’s own private residence, and the right to worship.”

“As part of the court challenge the Justice Centre will argue that that CMOH Orders violate multiple Charter-protected rights, such as the right to peacefully assemble, the right to visit friends and family, the right to freely practice religious beliefs, the right to travel and the right to conduct business and earn a living. The Justice Centre will further argue that these constitutional rights violations are not justified because lockdowns cause far more harm than whatever harm from COVID-19 lockdown measures may prevent,” reads the lawsuit.

Schoenberger said he and his congregation wanted to do something “pro-active and legal to work with the system,” in the fight against the health orders.

He said that when news of it hit the local community and media, the church had “two days of solid hate mail and voicemail.” At the same time, he received many calls and emails of support from across Canada, and abroad, as well.