The pastor of a church in Canada remains in police custody for the fourth day on Saturday after being charged with violating Alberta’s COVID-19 rules and refusing to comply with his bail conditions.
Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, who remained in custody as of early Saturday, held services for three consecutive weeks after the church was ordered to close at the end of January for reportedly violating restrictions on maximum gathering capacity and not following physical distancing, according to CTV News Edmonton.
Police initially arrested Coates after he held services for a second time, on charges of allegedly violating the Public Health Act, but later released him after serving an undertaking with conditions.
On Sunday, police and health officials attended the service and found that the pastor continued to defy his release conditions, and he was charged a second time.
The pastor turned himself in to police on Tuesday, according to the Edmonton Journal, which reported that he was charged with two counts for contravention of the Public Health Act and also charged for failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking.
Officials “attended the GraceLife Church to assess compliance in relation to conditions issued to the pastor on Feb. 7,” police said in a statement Wednesday. “Observations were made that the pastor was not complying with his undertaking release conditions, and the church was not in compliance with the public health order.”
It added, “Following a bail hearing before a justice of the peace, Coates was to be released on conditions. He remained in custody overnight after refusing to agree to those conditions. This morning in Stony Plain provincial court he continued to refuse to agree with those conditions.”
Coates’ attorney James Kitchen, who works with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said: “His first obedience is to his Lord, is to his God. And normally, obeying Jesus and obeying the government go right in hand. The government’s forcing him into a position where he has to choose between disobeying God and obeying government, or obeying God and disobeying government.”
The church said in a statement that 11 months ago, when government guidelines initially required churches not to gather in-person, they complied and held services online. Then, in June, when the health emergency was lifted, they began holing in-person worship services.
"When COVID-19 first appeared, we shifted to livestream and abided by most of the new government guidelines for our gatherings. But when the first declared public health emergency ended, we opened our doors and returned to nearly normal gatherings on Sunday, June 21, 2020," Grace Life Church said in the statement on its website.
"We did so recognizing COVID-19 was much less severe than the government had initially projected. This sentiment was reflected in the assessment of the premier of Alberta, who deliberately referred to COVID-19 as 'influenza' multiple times in a speech announcing the end of the first declared public health emergency," the statement continues.
The church explained that, in July, after two separate individuals who attended its gatherings had tested positive for the virus, leaders initiated contact tracing and tested many of the congregants. They found that no transmission had occurred, but "out of an abundance of caution, we shifted exclusively to livestream and shutdown all other ministries for two weeks."
Afterward, the church resumed gatherings and reports that after holding services for 28 consecutive Sundays, there have been no reports of transmission of COVID-19 linked to its services.
The church stressed that it's not gathering in defiance of the government, but instead in "obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
GraceLife Church said people were afraid and convinced of the efficacy of the government's ongoing lockdowns due to “misinformation and fearmongering,” especially by mainstream media. “So fearful, in fact, they have been convinced that yielding up their civil liberties to the government is in their best interests.”
About 129,000 people, or less than 3% of the population of Alberta, have tested positive for the coronavirus, the church said, adding: "It is also vital to highlight that more than 99% of those who contract the virus will fully recover.”
“We believe … churches should open, businesses should open, families and friends should come together around meals, and people should begin to exercise their civil liberties again. Otherwise, we may not get them back. ... We believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties.”
GraceLife Church said their actions are not aimed at “perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along.”
“If anything,” they explained, “we see our actions as contributing to its end — the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections. Our local church is clear evidence that governmental lockdowns are unnecessary. In fact, it is also evidence of how harmful they are. Without going into detail, we recently lost the life of one of our precious congregants who was denied necessary health care due to government lockdown measures.”
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has written to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to withdraw the health orders, which it says “unfairly discriminate as between restaurants and houses of worship.”